In the Ulster County Legislature’s District 1, incumbent Mary Wawro is facing a challenge from Aaron Levine.
Wawro, 61, a registered Conservative and the owner of Mary’s Little Lambs Daycare in Saugerties, is vying for a fifth term on the legislature and will hold the Conservative, Republican and Independence lines in the Nov. 5 election. Levine, 31, is a registered Democrat who manages his family’s janitorial company, Extreme Facility Services, and will appear on the Democratic, Working Families and Green party lines.
Levine estimates that he has personally knocked on about 750 doors in his prospective district. He said he is a New York Rangers season ticket holder and said he loves golfing and his hometown.
A Saugerties High alum and a 2010 graduate with a degree in government and politics from St. John’s University, Levine served as an intern on the staff of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer. He worked as a campaign staffer for Assembly members Didi Barrett and Addie Jenne in communications for six years until 2016.
“I’ve seen how the sausage gets made in government — I see what works and doesn’t work,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t want to see the sausage get made. It can be an ugly process when it’s getting done.”
Levine said he joined the Saugerties Democratic Committee to support Antonio Delgado in last year’s congressional election, and “decided to throw [his] hat in the ring” when he saw no other Democrat coming forward in the county legislative district.
“My interest in public services goes back to high school — I was the parliamentarian in our high school student government,” said Levine. “It’s a noble calling, it’s a selfless calling. You’re working for something that’s more than just yourself, you’re trying to make your community a better place.”
Should he be elected, Levine said his most important aim is to keep taxes where they’re at.
“We want to hold the line on property taxes. I think the county executive’s proposed budget had done a good job on that front, but I want to see where we can cut costs —shared services between county and town departments and potential consolidation between the town and village government in Saugerties — it worked well for the police department. It will hopefully pass savings onto the constituents in Saugerties.”
Past that, Levine hopes to tackle issues like the opioid epidemic and work to prevent future instances like the Karolys dumping controversy (which is in District 1), bringing broadband internet to Saugerties and improving area infrastructure.
“What we’ve been doing is not working, we need to be doing more and consulting with experts on [the opioid crisis],” I think both county Sheriff Figueroa and the county health commissioner have just recently put out a number of programs that they want to see implemented in the next few months, like the ORACLE bus. I want to make sure we can bring that into Saugerties as much as possible so that we can really bring awareness to the issue.”
Levine said Joe Karolys’ C&D dumping operation should be shut down as soon as possible. “I want to make sure that the entire weight of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the County Department of Health, the Saugerties police department, the Ulster County sheriff — I want to make sure that all relevant organizations are working together to make sure that this is shut down,” Levine said. “The most important role that the government has is protecting the health of its citizens. We need to make sure that our water, air and land are protected. If I get into the legislature, I will work night and day to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.”
Levine said he’s not in favor of putting a new waste facility in Saugerties or in Ulster County, but did not have another location in mind. (The Seneca Falls landfill further upstate, where Ulster currently deposits its trash, is set to close in five years.)
“We need to see if there’s any way that we can get a benefit out of the waste that we’re producing, see if there’s any that can be converted to energy,” Levine said. “I think working with Greene County and Sullivan County, potentially Orange County, we need to be working with them on a regional approach to this.”
Levine said he would like to see county funding increased for tourism, and wants to bring more businesses into Ulster. He said payment in lieu of taxes agreements should only be awarded on the promise of jobs for residents.
“This is a new opportunity for Saugerties and Ulster County,” said Levine of his candidacy. “I think that, just in the last year, 2018 and 2019, all of the relevant stakeholders and officeholders are new. Pat Ryan, Sheriff Figueroa, a new district attorney, a new county judge. This is a new beginning for Ulster County and I want to be a part of that. We need new people and new ideas in office to make sure that we push Ulster County forward as opposed to … I don’t want to say same old same old, but it’s important that we need new ideas in county government and I’m the person who’s going to be embodying that. I think it’s a fresh start for all of us.”
Wawro is a 1976 graduate of Saugerties High School and owner of Mary’s Little Lambs Daycare in Saugerties since 1991. Wawro has served as a PTA member, a Girl Scout leader and a Sunday school teacher in the community. She is a mother of five and a grandmother of four.
Wawro is currently serving her fourth term as District 1 Legislator, and serves as the deputy chair of the Energy & Environment Committee. She also sits on the Solid Waste Planning, the Legislative Programs and Education and Community Services committees. She is also on the Hope Rocks Committee and the Ulster County Coalition Against Narcotics, and is the legislature’s liaison to the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ulster County.
“My father was a legislator, and he had encouraged me kind of for years to do it,” said Wawro of her political beginnings. “I can tell you that [it] never ever crossed my mind until I was older. I love helping people, I get calls from people all the time and I see different needs in the community.”
During her tenure Wawro co-sponsored a local law prohibiting the usage of Styrofoam food containers by food service establishments and co-sponsored the “Bring Your Own Bag Act,” which restricts most retail stores from providing plastic bags at checkout and encourages the use of reusable bags.
“We were working on it for a couple of years,” said Wawro of the plastic bag legislation, which she considers one of her proudest achievements of this term. “When it passed I was chair of the environmental committee. As with anything, you start with a good thing like getting rid of plastic, and then you realize that paper is worse … the front end of paper is bad and the back end is good. Quickly we realized that paper wouldn’t be the answer either … we walked out of there with something that we could all live with.”
Wawro’s only qualm with the final product was that she did not feel that those on food stamps should receive an exemption from the five-cent paper bag fee.
“As a mother with five children who had to go on food stamps for a period of time, it was a little insulting,” said Wawro. “We can’t bring our own bag? I wanted this to be positive and have people have a good feeling about it. I feel like the general public has issues with people getting foods tamps in the first place. To hear that they didn’t have to pay the [tax doesn’t help that perception.] That’s the worst feedback that I’ve gotten about the ban.”
At the legislatures’ Oct. 15 meeting, though, Wawro opposed amending the county’s “Skip the Straw” law (which currently mandates that servers only give customers plastic straws upon request) to include plastic cutlery, stirrers and condiment packets. That amendment passed 13-9.
“I feel like we kind of learned something from this [plastic bag] law,” she said in an interview before voting on the amendment. “I’m really proud to have cosponsored that, but we probably didn’t partner as well with businesses as we could have. I think education [is crucial] — a year ago, there wasn’t much conversation about plastic straws.”
If she is re-elected, Wawro said she plans to continue to focus attention on addressing the opioid epidemic.
“I believe that we need to set up some kind of infrastructure — we can put as many people in rehab as we want, but if there isn’t infrastructure when they get out, they’re doomed for failure,” said Wawro. “So many families and demographics have been affected by this. That’s one of our biggest issues right now. We need housing, we need jobs and I think more services for families.”
Wawro has put in work on a legislative level to raise awareness about opioid addiction and possible solutions. Besides being a member of the Hope Rocks Committee, which puts on an annual festival that pairs local musical talent with resources for those affected by opioid addiction and suicide, Wawro cosponsored a budget amendment that added an opioid abuse tip line to the sheriff’s office and has supported initiatives to fund Narcan training courses in Saugerties.
On the Solid Waste Planning Committee, Wawro has toured the waste facilities at other locations and put thought towards future waste disposal and reduction efforts in the wake of the news of the closure of the Seneca Falls landfill in five years.
“One thing that we’ve been exploring is [taking a] regional [approach] — I’m not sure where I stand on that now. I’m sure that that [the future of waste disposal after the closure of the Seneca Falls Landfill] would entail a landfill. There’s a map that has 17 sites, I don’t believe that any of them are in Saugerties,” said Wawro. “There are economic benefits to an area with a landfill. When we think of landfills and the issue that we had with Winston farm, what we call landfills now and what we called landfills then are totally different.”
Wawro expressed interest in large-scale food composting on a county level, similar to Saugerties’ town composting program.
“I think that there’s not going to be a simple answer,” she said. “I think we’re going to have a whole bunch of things going on. I’m very proud of Saugerties, Saugerties is almost always ahead of the curve on any environmental issue and they’re already ahead of the curve with food composting,” she said.
Wawro pledged to be an independent voice in the legislature. “I don’t feel bound by my party minority or majority,” said Wawro. “I feel like there’s too much of that. Once you’re a legislator you should be getting along with everybody and coming to common ground, just like the Bring Your Own Bag Act. I would like to see that happen every time, where we can come away with something that we can all feel good about and be supportive to the people of Ulster County.”