Steve Noble was first elected Kingston’s mayor at the end of 2015. After a decade working in Kingston’s parks and recreation department, Noble set his eyes on the top spot, which was occupied by his boss, one-term mayor Shayne Gallo. When first elected, Noble was 33 years old. Co-founder of the City of Kingston Land Trust, with a degree in environmental science, Noble ran on the Working Family and Democratic lines. Noble will deliver his state-of-the-city speech just after the new year, when he will communicate his vision for the city’s future.
Rokosz Most: A year and a half before your election, you were promoted to environmental programs operations specialist and given wider responsibility for administering parks and rec grants. Three-quarters of your salary was paid via state grants. Just before the election, Gallo accused you of mishandling grant applications. By all accounts, this was a smear and an ironic one because it seems to me one of the things most characteristic of your time as mayor has been your ability to find and land grants. Was it your time in parks and rec that showed you what was possible with grants?
Steve Noble: One of the things that I realized in my previous role working for the city was that the city didn’t know how to manage grants. It wasn’t doing a good job capitalizing on the grants. When I came into office in 2016, the city was managing about $7 million in grant funds. That was it. Now we’re at a portfolio that’s over $65 million in active grant funds right now. And so when people always ask how come we haven’t raised taxes in seven-plus years, almost half of our infrastructure programs that we’ve done have been paid for by grants from federal and state sources. So we’ve been able to do more with less local dollars.
RM: So you’re not raising property taxes? Could you explain the process?
SN: What happens is that we set a tax levy, which is basically how much we charge all of the property owners in the city. That [levy] hasn’t changed since 2015. And it’s actually gone down this past year. What happens as we continue to have economic growth in Kingston, you’re then obviously able to share the pie, more universally across the board. That’s why you see the tax rates decline, because there are more people paying into the pot.
RM: Is it also connected to property values going up to make up the difference as tax rates go down?
SN: So, yeah. Commercial has actually gone down the most, but slowly making a small shift every year because we have had a somewhat unfair system that residential users have paid less and commercial users have paid more, and we’re trying to get that back down, or at least not as egregious as it was.
RM: Unless one is a multi-property landlord, declaring the housing emergency was unequivocally the right thing to do. But I guess you must have anticipated no matter what the rent guideline boards came up with, its findings were going to get challenged in court. I guess what I’m interested in here, there a financial component, right? Because every time you try to do something in housing, even if it’s good, it’s going to get challenged, and the city now has to spend the money to fight it.
SN: With the first part of the lawsuit, with us declaring a housing emergency and doing a vacancy study folks took us as a city to court, related to, did we do a good job on that vacancy study and did the common council accurately declare a housing emergency. Our corporation counsel, Barbara Graves-Poller, she’s defending that, and we’re going to court. We feel really confident that we’re going to be able to defend that and win that. And that’s us. And then you have the Kingston rent guidelines board, which is actually a state board, so we’re not involved. That’s up to the attorney general’s office.
RM: It seems just a matter of time before the same argument of preemption is used here.
SN: One of the things that I’ve said and will continue to say, for a good-cause eviction to be really useful for everybody is that it needs to be a statewide law. There should be a very clear statewide law that says that these are the rights that tenants have. These are the reasons why landlords can evict people. And there should be some reasonable rate upon lease renewal. Before this craziness of the housing market in Kingston, historically we never saw a five percent increase, year over year. If you have an apartment that’s fully renovated and someone moves out, okay, then yes. But that’s why good-cause eviction is so important. If you have the same crappy old apartment, to get a lease renewal more than five percent [higher] just isn’t right. Either way, we’re going to continue to push for that. There needs to be a statewide law.
RM: I just came from a newspaper meeting, and somebody told me to ask you what happened in the 3.0 draft of the citywide rezoning effort to the short-term rental ban? I understand it’s not in the third draft.
SN: In the second draft, we were still allowing short-term rentals. But what we were trying to curtail was non-owner-occupied, so people who were not living in the homes and renting them out. And so this new zoning code would kind of encompass all of that. And so then we said, Okay, well, do we want to be the next federal appeals case in New York and then risk keeping our whole-form zoning code from happening?
With the new legislation here in Kingston, a permitting system allows just one percent of total housing units in the city to operate as short-term rentals, and then only one unit per property. We think that that significantly reduces any kind of corporate Airbnb-type entities from moving in and wanting to buy up buildings. But it does allow there still to be a few vacation homes in the city, because sometimes people go on vacation with big families, and they don’t want to stay in a motel and they need to rent a house. So that’s why we went with that, and we think that it’ll stand up in court. We feel like 100 [short-term rentals] across the city of 25,000 people or 10,000-plus housing units is reasonable. There’s a lot of legal work that we need to do.
RM: Another thing, I don’t know if you want to speak on the matter, but it’s an often-remarked-upon subject, and that is the number of properties sitting dormant in the Stockade owned by Bender. The building which housed BSP was the beating heart of the live music scene in Kingston and much of the surrounding area. The Woolworth’s building is [almost] next to it.
SN: There were a lot of promises made to the community back in 2016. When all these buildings were being purchased, right? We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that. We’re going create a market, we’re going to create a hotel, we’re going to create lodging. And we’re going to create places for people to sleep and apartments.
And you know, it’s just unfortunate that none of that’s happened. We do have a vacant-building fee that we charge, but there are ways to get around it — by hosting events, for instance. All you have to do is get a permit for something. There’s been pop-up events and things. We’re hopeful that, you know, with the economic vitality of the Uptown district that at some point there will be a realization that that there has to be something good that happens with those buildings. I think that the more we continue to revitalize, and the more we continue to do good things, those properties are going to continue to stick out. And I think that will get then get the attention of more and more media outlets and more and more folks in the community.”
RM: On the subject on keeping our money local, we’ve got Dover Kohl out of Florida paid as consultants by the City of Kingston to present the rezoning plan, or Pennrose out of Pennsylvania chosen by Ulster County to be the developer of a new apartment complex at Golden Hill. Could you comment on the difficulties for finding local businesses to do these jobs we’re paying out-of-staters to do, and whether you have a philosophy in this regard?
SN: So sometimes you get to choose based on experience and skill set and others, everything that you build, basically you have to go to the lowest bidder. When it comes to an organization like Dover Kohl, you know it’s a nationwide company that does work everywhere, whether it was the City of Albany or here in Kingston. They are the best when it comes to form-based code. And there are very few people that do that type of work.
So that’s why, for instance, we go with someone like them. But when it comes to our construction companies, when it comes to something we’re building, whether they’re from Pennsylvania or New Jersey we have to go with the lowest bidder. Municipal purchasing in general, we have to do requests for proposals. Basically we send them far and wide across the state, and anybody can respond. Whether that could be even buying a car. So you could get a $25,000 quote from your local dealership, but if you get a $20,000 quote from in Orange County, yeah, you have to buy the car in Orange.
RM: Does the cost of the workers’ pay figured into these contracts? Can that unfairly drive up the cost of a project based on better employee pay?
SN: In New York it’s prevailing wage. So all jobs have to pay the same rate, regardless.
RM: If you want to speak to your own pay raise, let me set that up by saying that I understand the argument is that you look at the mayor or the supervisor in Poughkeepsie, or if you look at the mayor in Middletown, look at what everyone’s getting paid, and you’ve just been going up incrementally over the last few years trying to match what you think your pay should be at.
SN: I think that we’re putting together what we felt was a reasonable approach to keep the salary in line with our peers that have what we would consider a strong-mayor form of government where the mayor acts as the chief administrator. We don’t have a city manager. The mayor here in this city does both jobs. The salary of the mayor in the City of Kingston hadn’t been adjusted in over a decade plus. We felt like it was time and raising it by $5000 a year seemed like, a reasonable way to get it to the right level. You know, executive compensation for elected officials is always a tough subject.
RM: Was your family political?
RM: Other than your uncle.
SN: And he wasn’t really political, either. My uncle’s a plumber. My dad’s an electrician. Unfortunately, I realized very quickly I was terrible with my hands. But I guess you can consider electricians and plumbers like public servants because they work with the public and you’re always there for the community. Like my grandfather, he was a plumbing inspector. And then my uncle decided to become an alderman when I was younger. He was an alderman-at-large for some 20-odd years. It just shows how well-respected he was that the public was interested in both electing me as mayor and him as alderman-at-large, and that they had no concerns at all about any family dealings or anything like that.
RM: What was the genesis of the new form-based zoning?
SN: That city [comprehensive] plan was passed in 2016. It was the first bill that I signed into law as mayor, you know, And so then out of that we wanted to take up the zoning, because it was really the next step. Having a comprehensive plan but then not changing any of the land-use laws made it almost impossible to actually implement anything with the comprehensive plan.
RM: What’s going on up at the Cooper Dam?
SN: A 20-million-dollar project. The Kingston water department was told by the state that repairs were needed. We are probably about halfway through the dam project now. We had to go into the drought, and that caused concerns and issues for our residents. But we were able to get through the worst of it this summer. And now we’re back up to as full as the reservoir can be, and we’re going into the winter in a good place. We expect the dam project to be finished next summer, early fall.”
RM: Let’ stalk crime. The budget has a new crime analyst?
SN: We have a crime analyst that we work with, they work out of John Jay College under contract with us, paid for with grant money. and so we’ve decided to use the grant money to have an in-house analyst, the same person, and so we’re really excited. It’s really helpful, especially when we’re dealing with larcenies and burglaries and people stripping copper and catalytic converters from under the cars.
There’s just so much IT infrastructure now that we have. So having that crime analyst is going to be great. But in general 2021 was a tough year for us, still in the heat of the pandemic, starting to come out of the pandemic. We saw crime spike across the country. We had lots of issues here with gun violence, and shots fired. So far, this year is a lot quieter. Knock on wood. In the 2022 budget we added more police officers and doubled down on community policing. We’re hopeful that we’ve come through the worst of it. Because of relationships that we have with the sheriff’s office and the Oracle team, we’ve been able to help reduce opioid deaths.
RM: Tell us about recent strides the city has been making to deal with mental health.
SN: One of the new things that we’re doing that I’m going to be talking about in my State of the City address is we are going to be launching the first mental-health ambulance service outside New York City. So. first in New York State. We purchased the ambulance. and it just got delivered. What we’re doing is pairing an EMT firefighter with a mental-health crisis counselor, and then they’re going to respond to emergency calls – mental-health 911 calls and other referrals. We’re really excited to be able to roll this out, a lot of our calls are mental-health related.”Modeled after a similar program in Denver, the idea is to reduce the amount of people in law enforcement with guns showing up at a mental-health scene. The program is grant-funded for the next couple of years.