Two challenge Steve Noble for Kingston mayor

Mayor Steve Noble, Ellen DiFalco and Vince Rua.

Mayor Steve Noble is facing not one but two challengers at the polls as he seeks a second four-year term in office. Noble holds the Democratic and Working Families Party lines. Ellen DiFalco is a registered Democrat who is running on the Republican and Independence party lines. Vincent Rua will appear on the ballot on the Serve America Movement (SAM) party line.

Noble, 37, worked in the city’s Parks & Recreation Department for a decade before, in 2015, he defeated his boss, former mayor Shayne Gallo, in a Democratic primary and Republican Ron Polacco in the general election.

Gallo’s shadow looms large over Noble’s re-election fight. DiFalco was Gallo’s confidential secretary and a close ally; Gallo served as an advisor to Rua early in his campaign and Rua has echoed Gallo’s rhetoric accusing Noble of working on behalf of a corrupt network of Democratic Party officials.

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Noble, meanwhile, is running on a record that includes four years without an increase in the tax levy, a flood of state, federal and private grants to fund infrastructure projects and new initiatives and efforts to increase responsiveness of city government.

“I think you’re seeing people more engaged,” said Noble of his first term. “I think there’s a sense that people feel city government is actually listening to them in a way that didn’t always happen before.”

Noble’s tenure has been marked by a major increase in state, federal and private grants. Since taking office in 2016, the city has received more than $20 million in grants to fund everything from sewer repairs and upgrades to Dietz Stadium to a part-time coordinator for the city’s health and wellness programs. Noble credits the flow of outside funding to a coordinated strategy that included the creation of an office dedicated to managing existing grants and pursuing new ones. Noble added that his staff had been astute in identifying areas where grant funding was available and designing projects likely to receive money through the state’s Consolidated Funding Application process. Noble said his focus on grants was a byproduct of his time as a “boots on the ground” city employee when, he said, he saw good plans to improve quality of life in the city wither for lack of funding.

“When I came into office one of my priorities was to find the money to do these things and put people in place to make it happen,” said Noble.

Noble’s first term has also coincided with increasing concerns about housing affordability and gentrification. Over the past few years, investors from downstate have snapped up residential and commercial properties around the city at record-high prices and in many cases have passed those costs on to tenants. In response, Noble pushed to complete work on a land bank, begun under his predecessor, to acquire, rehabilitate and market long-vacant homes to first-time buyers. Noble has also pushed the development of a community land trust that could eventually acquire properties and lease them at below-market rates. Noble also supports using the state’s new Emergency Tenant Protection Act to impose rent regulation on rental properties with six or more units that were built before 1974. If enacted in Kingston, a rent control board would have the power to impose annual caps on rent increases at eligible properties.

Over four years, Noble has managed to keep the tax levy stable, aided by low energy costs, increasing sales tax revenue and the retirement of senior city employees. Noble has also advocated using surplus funds to pay down outstanding debt and to pay for short-shelf life items, like police cars, that are more commonly bought on credit. Noble has also introduced “participatory budgeting,” which sets aside about $45,000 annually for projects — selected by surveys of neighborhood residents — in each of the city’s three business districts. Noble has also kept money in the reserve fund each year to pay costs associated with a new contract with city police, who have been working without a labor agreement since he took office.

Noble was elected as a progressive Democrat; over the past four years he has staked out reliably liberal positions on hot-button issues like immigration and gun control. But his relationship with his progressive base has been strained on the issue of the Kingstonian, a proposed mixed-use development in Uptown. Noble pursued a $10 million state grant that will be used, in part, to support the $53 million project. But the proposal has drawn criticism from activists who say it will decrease affordability and speed up the pace of gentrification. Last week, Noble announced that he had reached an agreement with developers to include 14 units of affordable housing in the now-143-unit project, but that has not allayed all critics of the plan. Noble has also struggled to respond to activist groups seeking major changes in how city police operate in poor communities.

If Noble is running on his record so, in a way, is Vince Rua. The 66-year-old CPA and businessman has criticized many Noble initiatives as inadequate or inept, and taken particular aim at the administration’s budgeting practices. Rua is a Kingston native who returned home from the capital district after a career that included stints at major accounting firms and running a chain of men’s clothing stores. Rua first got involved in city politics two years ago when, as a member of the Kingston Republican Committee, he organized a slate of candidates for the Common Council and county legislature running under the banner of “Restore Kingston Pride.” That effort ended with just one RKP candidate winning election — Ward 7 Alderman Patrick O’Reilly — who earlier this year opted to run on Noble’s “One Kingston” ticket. Rua then resigned from the GOP committee and would later turn down the party’s nomination for the mayor’s race. Instead, Rua is running as the candidate of a Serve America Movement, a centrist third party with just a handful of members in New York State.

Rua has promised to leverage his business contacts to create 300-400 new jobs in the city by finding tenants for the Kingston Business Park. The facility was developed in the 1990s to draw manufacturing jobs to the city but the efforts of four previous administrations to attract and retain tenants have largely failed.

“I have a 45-year business career and I’m networked around the country,” said Rua. “I don’t think anyone has come to that office with that kind of connectivity.”

Rua has also put forth a housing plan that he calls “Affordable Plus.” The plan would offer rental property owners major tax breaks in exchange for converting 20 percent of their stock to affordable housing. That, he said, would quickly create 600-700 affordable units. Rua also supports the development of high-density “tiny houses” to create additional housing stock in the city.

Rua said he believes the city has already taken on too much of the county’s low income housing and said that he would focus his efforts on affordable housing aimed at working families. Rua also opposes opting into the Emergency Tenant Protection Act, saying that it would discourage investments in existing rental properties and the development of new ones.

Rua has also promised to cut property taxes by addressing what he called “mistakes” in the city budget that amounted to $5.2 million in 2017 and 2018. Rua accused Noble and longtime city Comptroller John Tuey of consistently overestimating expenses and underestimating revenue, resulting in a swollen fund balance. Rua said the fund balance, in turn, had been used to hire new employees and undertake projects, like straightening out the intersection of Broadway and Pine Grove Avenue that he deemed unnecessary.

“That fund balance was beefed up because the city took more in property taxes than what was necessary,” said Rua.

Noble responded to criticism of his handling of the budget by noting that much of the city budget is supported by sales tax revenue, a notoriously variable revenue stream. Noble added all expenditures from the fund balance had been approved by the Common Council. Noble also pointed to the city’s low fiscal stress rating from the State Comptroller’s Office and strong bond rating as evidence of fiscal prudence.

“Yes, we are cautious with the budget because we don’t trust the sales tax,” said Noble. “If these were mistakes, they would have been identified by the New York State Comptroller’s Office and our independent auditors.”

Ellen DiFalco, 66, is a registered Democrat running on the Republican and Independence party lines. She has never held elective office but has previously run unsuccessfully for the Common Council’s Ward 3 seat and the District 6 seat in the county legislature. DiFalco comes to the race after a long career in county government, including 27 years in the county’s tourism office and nine in the offices of the county legislature. In 2004, she became the first woman to be appointed clerk of the Ulster County Legislature. In 2011, she came out of retirement to serve as Gallo’s confidential secretary.

DiFalco has run a low-key campaign. While Rua has outraised Noble in campaign contributions and paid for Facebook ads, lawn signs and other media, DiFalco has not filed paperwork indicating that she has raised any campaign cash at all. DiFalco also opted not to appear at an Oct. 24 debate at Congregation Emanuel and chose to respond to interview requests with emailed statements. 

“As a mayoral candidate, I am not a newcomer to politics,” wrote DiFalco. “As a former county and city employee, I have experienced first-hand how government works.”

DiFalco said she would focus on cutting costs in city government, including addressing $1 million in what she called “zero net worth positions” in the city workforce. DiFalco said she would also improve coordination between county and city economic development efforts, and provide more services for the city’s seniors. DiFalco also wants to overhaul the city’s website and improve access to meeting agendas and minutes.  DiFalco criticized a 2016 sales tax revenue sharing agreement negotiated between Noble and former county executive Mike Hein. DiFalco said if elected, she would renegotiate the deal in 2021 to lift a cap on how much of the revenue the city could keep.

“I have institutional knowledge you can’t find in textbooks,” DiFalco wrote. “I will not require task forces or advisory boards to assist me in this endeavor. I know how to streamline departments and make them more efficient.”

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