Woodstock town supervisor Bill McKenna says it’s all about teamwork as he looks ahead to another year and forward to a planned town office renovation. “We hope to have the plans completed in the new year, in January, and hopefully going out to bid in February, or the beginning of March. It’s long overdue,” McKenna said. “It’s been a long haul to get here.”
Woodstock voters in November approved a $1 million bond issue to go along with $1.9 million in capital funds to renovate its facilities located in an old mansion atop the town’s Comeau property.
Town Clerk Jackie Earley said everyone who works at the complex is excited about the renovation. “I remember saying this at the firehouse in Zena when I went there to discuss the renovation and people were like, we are going to destroy the building,” she said. “Basically what we’re doing is not destroying it. We’re saving it by not overusing it, which we have been doing for years and years and years. So I think that’s a good thing. It’s a good thing and Pam’s office definitely needs to be redone,”
Earley was referring to bookkeeper Pam Boyle, whose office is in the Supervisor’s Cottage, where she gets regular visits from a squirrel that has chewed its way through the structure. “Pam doesn’t like sharing it with the red squirrel,” McKenna said.
The supervisor is doubtful an ongoing review by the state for possible historical status of the building will have an impact on the project’s progress. “The building itself…I don’t think anybody has come across any great historic value. There is a possibility of linking this property to the Ricks farm where the Jonathan apple was created back in 1825, I think. But this building was built 100 years after that, so there’s just no correlation,” McKenna said.
Changes on the Town Board
“This is the first time in four years that there will be a change on the board. So that’s going to be interesting,” he said. “And it’ll be an interesting change because the two board members going out have probably been in Woodstock the longest. Lorin (Rose) grew up here and Richard (Heppner) was very young when he moved to town, only coming up from Kingston.”
Rose and Heppner will be replaced by two members, Maria-Elena Conte and Bennet Ratcliff, who are relatively new to town.
“I’ve met with them a few times in social settings, or casual meetings and they seem to be interested and have some energy. I was quick to point out when we met the other day, that here are the employees. This is the backbone of our organization,” McKenna said. “It’s important for the board members to know who they’re working with, and a lot of times they kind of forget all the people that are working. Down the road, they don’t even know who somebody is. Somebody retires and they’re like, oh, where were they working?”
Earley noted people are spread throughout the town.
“You got the whole highway department, you’ve got the court, you got the police department, you have water and sewer, you have the youth center. So you have a lot of people that are off this property,” Earley said.
“That’s a lot of moving parts, and again, these are the folks that help keep that all meshing well together,” McKenna added.
And there are decades of combined experience just between Earley, who has worked for the town for 36 years, and Boyle, 22. Prior to working for the town and overlapping some of those years, Boyle worked for Ulster County for 36 years.
McKenna, who has run his own business, said he had perceptions of how government should run, but he soon learned it shouldn’t be run like a business.
Earley agreed. “It’s totally different. I remember one supervisor coming in and wanting to run it like a business and it did not work well at all,” she said. “And when you have somebody that feels that they’re very superior to everybody else that’s working, it created a very bad atmosphere. That was not good. Bill’s always been inclusive, even when he was on the board, and as supervisor always has been very inclusive with all the employees.”
Fiscal responsibility and going the extra mile
McKenna said he learned from the late Supervisor Jeremy Wilber that fiscal responsibility is key. “It really helps us be able to complete all our dreams and see that they come through. Without a handle on your money, you have no idea,” he said. “And Pam (Boyle) has just done an outstanding job these 22 years keeping track of that. At any point, I can get a report and an update on where we are,” McKenna said.
The employees pitch in because they take pride in their work, he noted. “Anytime somebody comes up with some new idea, Jackie’s hand is the first one to up. I’ll take care of it.”
Earley noted how Plochmann Lane looked typical of any other Ulster County road after the Highway Department repaved it, but the employees took care to make sure it looked good. “Woodstock goes that extra step, and seeds all along that road. It’s so pretty right now because the grass is still fresh and green,” she said. “They finish the edges up and put that grass down. The first time I noticed it was many years ago on Ricks Road when they did that.”
Town continues modernizing records management
Earley said the Town Clerk’s Office and other departments are working hard to digitize records so they are available quickly. “Rather than having to wait, we can just push a button and send it along via email,” Earley said. “The permanent retention records are the hardest because they add up and you end up with boxes and boxes and boxes. So this way we can get them digitized. Then we can get rid of the paper copy and let the digital become the permanent copy.”
Making meetings more accessible
McKenna and other officials are meeting with the town’s IT consultant, Professional Computer Associates of Red Hook, to install equipment to allow hybrid meetings that can be held simultaneously in-person and over the Zoom videoconferencing platform. Since March 2020, meetings have been largely held remotely due to COVID-19.
Videoconferencing has opened doors for people who cannot attend a meeting, but can participate virtually. The town has embraced this access and McKenna thinks it should continue once in-person meetings resume. “Zoom is a great way to have people participate who might not be able to make it out, and so I’m looking forward to that. We’ll use some funding from that American Rescue Plan to bring that about,” McKenna said.
The large television in the meeting room can display everyone and a camera, likely suspended from the ceiling, will show the proceedings. It will be streamed to Zoom, broadcast live on the town’s public access Channel 23 and it will be recorded.
Participants can ask questions remotely and will appear on the television, where Town Board members can see and hear them.
Employees embrace electric vehicle use
“We had an electric car that we bought, the (Nissan) Leaf, out there a year ago and I know that few employees were a little skeptical. Now, they love it,” McKenna said. “I anticipate that maybe this year we’ll get a second one. We have the other building inspector’s truck that’s starting to show a little bit of wear.”
There was initial concern the building inspectors could not get up steep mountain roads with the electric car, and it did almost run out of battery power once, but it turned out it had been mistakenly unplugged the day before and didn’t get a full charge.
Zoning amendments on the horizon
With a moratorium on construction and permits for transient housing, such as hotels, motels and short-term rentals coming to an end soon, various groups including the Zoning Revision Committee and Housing Task Force, are coming up with proposals for changes to the town’s Zoning Law that will encourage development of prudent, responsible and affordable housing. The task force is expected to provide an update in January.
“We also are looking at the possibility of a tax which would have to be voted on by the general public. Red Hook, I think, has it where houses that sell over the median price, there’s a 2% tax on top of that,’ McKenna said.
Woodstock would use the tax money for affordable housing.
“And again, it’s only on the House over the median price, so an average house isn’t going to get hit with this tax,” he said.
The town is working with state Sen. Michelle Hinchey and Assemblyman Kevin Cahill to gain the ability to levy the extra tax.
Looking forward to new offices
Despite people’s differences of opinion on how the Comeau renovation and addition should be designed, everyone seems to agree the employees need better working conditions.
“So I can’t see anything but just great things happening with the Comeau property because first of all, we have an older generation that I’m now one of. Getting up the stairs is not easy, and it’s embarrassing. And to have an elevator for one floor is kind of silly,” Earley said. “They say a lift. Half the time they break down, they don’t work. So somebody still has to either come down or somebody’s got to go up, so this way to it’ll give them better working conditions.”
Plans are to bring all the public-facing offices to the first floor and to have some spaces on the second floor that don’t need to be accessed by the public. Heavy filing cabinets will be moved from the second floor, where they are now causing joists to sag and compromise the structure.
“I think to what people lose sight of is that the building was designed as a house 100 years ago. It was not designed to be an office space.”