Neil Bettez, supervisor of New Paltz’s town government, has like everyone else spent a lot more time in masks this year, and like many others has spent a lot of time avoiding letting children and cats disrupt the governmental work that is almost entirely conducted via video conference of late. In years past, Bettez has been interviewed about the year ahead in person, but in pandemic mode these questions and answers were exchanged entirely via email.
What do you see ahead if the town receives no additional aid from state or federal government?
In the short term, I think we are okay. The upside of not getting a lot of money in state aid or sales- tax revenue means that our budgets are not as dependent on it. We were able to offset these reductions over the last year by employee attrition, and reduced spending by choosing not to replace vehicles or deferring maintenance. This worked in the short term, but isn’t a long-term solution. Either we will need some state aid or the world needs to get back to normal in the next year. Hopefully we’ll see both those things happen.
What are your priorities for the town this year?
Like everyone else, we’re focused on getting though the next few months. Our goal is to make sure that as things get bad with Covid we will not shut down, and we’ve put mechanisms in place to make sure we can continue to provide all the services that the town normally does, and increase services if needed.
In addition to that, we have several projects to carry through to completion: the new police and justice court building on North Putt, the new fire station, and the Henry W. DuBois road-improvement project. We’re really looking forward to crossing the finish line on these, especially the building projects, since now that we have solved the space need of the police, courts, and fire department we can focus on moving town hall to a permanent location.
Although we need to have engineers and architects look into the feasibility of it, my preference is to move the town hall into the village hall space that has been freed up by moving the courts and fire station. In addition to saving money by sharing services, the convenience to residents of having the town and village offices in the same building makes this a logical and economical choice.
Given the surge in home prices in the Hudson Valley and especially New Paltz over the last year, the town board agrees that it is time to focus on implementing some affordable-housing initiatives. We are still looking into our options, but it is likely that they will parallel the village’s proposed Airbnb law, which allows people to rent out houses they own and live in (at least for part of the year) but restricts corporations from buying properties and turning them into short-term rentals instead of apartment and or houses for people to live in, since that drives up the cost of housing by reducing supply. We are also looking into an affordable-housing law similar to the [one in force in the] village that would require developers to include affordable units as part of any project in exchange for some sort of incentive, like increased density. But this is a complicated process, and we are still trying to work out the details.
What can you say about how the national interest in police reform is impacting local contract negotiations, and when is the earliest you believe those could completed?
We were not able to come to agreement during negotiations after the last contract that ended January 1, 2018, and are waiting to hear the arbitrator’s decision, so we have not been negotiating for a while. However, I am hopeful that with the national interest in reform as well as the police reform and reinvention collaborative formed here in New Paltz, everyone comes to the table realizing it is a priority, and is willing to make the needed changes.
Has the importance of completing the Henry W. project changed in the context of the pandemic?
A little. The mental and physical benefits of access to outdoor recreation opportunities has been mentioned in numerous studies over the years, and I think that the pandemic highlighted the importance of having public access to trails and recreation areas. The Henry W. DuBois project not only provides a safe place for residents to walk or ride their bikes, it also serves as a connector to access many nearby areas like the Mill Brook Preserve, the Wallkill Valley rail-trail, River-to-Ridge trail and the Empire State trail to the Walkway Over the Hudson without getting in their cars. We are so lucky to have these resources in our community.
What should residents be expecting to see happen on the justice center project in 2021?
Right now we are on schedule to complete the project in July 2021, with the police and courts moving in around then. When we get back to having in-person public meetings, we will start to have town board, planning board and other meetings there. We are also working with a local donor to build a small playground on-site, since the police station is used as a safe place for custody exchanges where there is concern for children’s well-being and safety, particularly in situations where the terms of custody are not amicable. In addition to disruption, stress, and uncertainty, children in these situations are faced with the added unfamiliarity and formality of the police station environment, and the addition of a playground to this project will provide for the health and well-being of families in the community.
The cell tower on Jansen Road is receiving quite a bit of scrutiny, but review of the project will likely be completed one way or another in 2021. What have town residents been saying to you about the project? How important is the promised coverage in that part of town?
I drove around during the recent balloon test and spoke with nearby residents who are really upset about it, and I agree with them. I would prefer that the tower be built in the area near the Thruway that is zoned for that type of development instead of a residential neighborhood, but it seems like the deck is stacked against local municipalities when it comes to denying projects like this.
As far as improving coverage in that part of town, I know there are certainly dead zones since I regularly lose calls as I drive around, but I was under the impression that this would primarily benefit towns to our south. However, I have not sat in on every meeting so that may not be the case. I do know that early on in this project our police and fire departments worked with them to see if it would increase their coverage, and it didn’t seem to improve coverage at all. It’s going to be interesting to see how that unfolds.