On Monday night, March 21, representatives from the Laberge Group proposed a plan for the City of Kingston to distribute $17.3 million of federal funds allocated to the city as its portion of the $1.9-trillion economic stimulus called the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) made available to avert the most serious consequences stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic. Not all members of the Kingston Common Council were happy with everything that was proposed or with the degree of public input in the process.
In late May of last year, mayor Steve Noble had issued a Request For Proposals to choose a consultant. On July 14, he announced his selection of the Albany-based consulting from among five submitters.
After a review and interview process, the Laberge Group had been unanimously selected. Laberge senior planner David Gilmour and planning and development director Nicole Allen made a Powerpoint presentation over Zoom.
Kingston government still has not recovered from the failure of its terminal microphone system back on February 1. Its public hearings have been held in a back room closed to the public ever since. Citizens wishing to speak have been encouraged to use the city’s video conferencing platform.
The duo from Laberge identified eight categories into which the disposition of the funds would be broken down. Vital community infrastructure and housing action projects would receive the lion’s share of the funds, at $4.545 million and $4.335 million respectively. General public safety and support ($2.125 million), arts, cultural and tourism development ($1.465 million), parks and greenway improvements ($1.250 million), non-profit and service support ($1.225 million), and business districts development ($1.2 million) would get the rest of the pie, $7.265 million. Some $1.155 million would be spent for administration, program delivery and premium pay.
Other common council members expressed concern that they hadn’t had given enough time to study the strategic plan prior to Laberge’s presentation.
For some, that meant that they would accept the consultants’ recommendations.
“I do not claim,” said Carl Frankel, the freshman alder for Ward 2, “to have the kind of expertise that will allow me in a brief review of a document like this to feel that I have the authority to challenge the wisdom and analysis of people who have put hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of person-hours into getting this plan put together.”
Alder of Ward 1 Barbara Hill, another freshman, expressed similar sentiments.
Finding the Wayfinder
Other members had concerns about the recommendations. One item in particular that caught the attention of numerous members was $935,000 for the implementation of Wayfinding signage.
Alder for Ward 4 and chair of the council Rita Worthington’s offered her reaction.
“Wow,” said Worthington. “To me, that’s an exorbitant amount for signage throughout the city. That’s my personal opinion. I don’t know how we came up with that number, but the more money that can go into housing right now, that would be my preference.”
Planner David Gilmore answered deferentially. “Just for information and background, the original Wayfinding study was conducted by the Ulster County Transportation Council ,… started six or seven years ago, and was seen as a tool to aid overall economic development, including in the service and arts sector,” he said.
Gilmore noted the difficulty lining up sufficient funds in the past to support what he described as an economic multiplier. He shared this personal experience: “Coming in from Upstate, from the Lake George area, when I moved to New Paltz, it took me a while to learn my way around Kingston.”
Worthington thanked him when he finished.
“I appreciate your answer,” she said. “I still think that’s a lot of money for signs to be displayed throughout our city. We’re not that big where we need a million dollars’ worth of signs. My opinion.”
More than just a buzzword among city planners, “Wayfinding” is a design concept that seeks to solve urban spatial problems through a variety of solutions not limited to signage. It is reported that the term was first used by an architect named Kevin Lynch in 1960 to refer to elements in the cityscape such as maps, street numbers and directional signs as wayfinding devices.
A Pennsylvania firm named Merje, which bills itself as a team of wayfinding experts, is handling Kingston’s efforts to find its way. Whether the Common Council will or can chip into that number remains to be seen.
“Yes, signs are important,” offered Michael Olivieri, alder of Ward 7. “So people know where they are going. But in this day and age where everyone has a cellphone with GPS, I would like to see some of that money allocated towards fixing the streets, fixing the roads.
“And I believe there’s another line in there and this may be a bigger project, but I was able to take a tour of the Midtown KFD building, and you know, they are in dire need of repairs. One of the bays can’t even be used for heavy vehicles because of the crumbling infrastructure underneath it. If you were to do a straw poll, anyone out there, would they rather have more signs or have the fire department have a bay that’s usable? I’m sure they would all say the same thing.”
A mediocre turnout
Tony Davis, alder for Ward 6, weighed in, raising questions about the process by which consensus was gathered by the consultants in order to identify which worthy causes should receive how much money. Davis wanted to know whether the previous sessions held specifically to generate public input had been done virtually or in person.
“The sessions were done virtually,” planning and development director Allen answered. “It was all during the fall. There was a couple that we’re done in person with some of the department heads and some of the stakeholder groups, but the larger public sessions were virtual.”
“How would you say the turnout was from the public’s engagement in this?”
“I would say it was a mediocre turnout,” responded Allen. “I wouldn’t say it was robustly attended, but they were recorded, and we do know that it [the recording] was downloaded multiple times from the city’s Engage Kingston site. It was also recorded in Spanish and had the live interpretation during one of the public meetings as well.”
“Olay,” responded Davis, “because I thought the decision on having this special meeting tonight was to engage the public in speaking, and I’m not sure if anybody signed up or anybody’s out there to speak. I’d rather have seen the public ask questions and then the council be able to ask questions after that. So hopefully giving up time for anyone out there to see the public who wants to give input in regard to this.”
Alder-at-large Andrea Shaut echoed sentiments in support of more funds directed toward housing. She then picked up the banner of infrastructure herself, noting that the amount of funds directed toward that category seemed to her unusually low. How could that be remedied?
“It sounds like the majority of us have the same opinion on a lot of this,” said Shaut. “What would be the next steps for the council? Could we say, okay, we want more money for Albany Avenue and we’re going to take it from here, and we can make that change before the council votes on this? Or do we just have to vote a yes or no on this plan, and as the plan progresses, then we make changes?”
Mayor Noble fielded the question, not answering Shaut with a yes or a no. He said that he and the city comptroller had hoped to sit in on the next Finance Committee meeting to address these questions.
Shaut tried again. “So there’s still wiggle room for the council to make some changes on this before a yes or no vote?” she asked. For the second time, the mayor avoided a direct answer.
Like many a mayor before him, Noble is trying to satisfy diverse interests with aims that are often contradictory.
Not enough public input?
Two people called in to speak over Zoom during the part of the evening reserved for public comment.
Bill Cranston, who described himself as a partner in 666 LLC and a landlord, talked numbers. He thought $125,000 “a perplexing figure” to allocate to small business. “The consultancy has seen fit to allocate over a million dollars towards parks. And a million dollars to not-for-profits,” he said. “I have a tough time correlating either one of those things to Covid. We’ve had $24 million from the Novo Foundation as of yesterday to mid-Hudson Valley not-for-profits .… I think not-for-profits absolutely do deserve funding. I don’t know if this is the best use of Covid federal monies…
“The public input into, I’m sorry, I’ve forgot the consultancy’s name here, I have it written down, Laberge, Lebarge, was basically all virtual. Obviously.
“In the past two years. that was really the only way we were doing business. I don’t know that, actually I do know. I know we haven’t had enough public input into this. You know, Zoom’s great.
“I’m the only person here tonight. I’m one person in a city of 30,000 people. We’ve got to get in touch more with the public. I would say 90 percent to 95 percent of the citizens of Kingston have no idea that this $17 million is there or how it’s going to be spent.”
Because of the extremely low attendance, the common council will keep the public hearing open until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, March 29. Anyone who like to submit written comment may do so by emailing the city clerk at email@example.com