As a new alderman to the Kingston Common Council, Ward 5’s Jennifer Fuentes agrees that Kingston faces many hurdles – especially in regard to the economy, but the city has many attractable assets that could work in Kingston’s favor.
The city’s proximity to New York City and Albany can be leveraged with these assets to market Kingston to the business community.
Fuentes took time with KingstonCitizens.org to discuss these issues. This is part two of a three-part series of interviews with freshman common council members.
AZ: What do you see as the top, long-term challenges facing the City of Kingston?
JF: As an upstate city in New York, Kingston leaders must rebuild our economy to create quality jobs that can sustain our middle class. Too many residents struggle to scrape together a living at wages that do not reflect the actual costs of living. This problem of underemployment/unemployment, multiple jobs to make ends meet and contingent work drains the quality of family and neighborhood life. For the City of Kingston this means smaller tax revenues to provide the services our residents need and fewer businesses that can compete in this environment.
The top county employers are the public sector (Education, County, State, and City) and health care (heavily taxpayer subsidized), but with declining tax revenues we are likely to see future cuts to this workforce. This problem must be resolved thoughtfully because finding few opportunities, our young people are leaving the area, draining our talent pool.
AZ: Despite the challenges, Kingston is often described as a “vibrant city” that has much potential. Do you agree? What are some of the city’s most promising opportunities?
JF: Kingston is a unique community that has many great things to offer. There is something here for everyone from the arts and culture, history, waterfront access, and outstanding parks and recreation. Clearly, we must do a better job marketing our assets and promoting tourism as one component of a healthy economy. Hiring a Main Street Manager is a step in the right direction that should be supported and fully funded. Our proximity to Albany and NYC, access to the NYS Thruway, and Business Park are also an asset that can be marketed to attract jobs. The Solar Consortium offers exciting prospects in technology and manufacturing. However, both tourism and green technology will offer no panacea to the challenges we face unless we promote the creation of good jobs that provide benefits and sustainable wages.
What I love best about Kingston right now is the indoor winter toddler park at the Andy Murphy/Mid-town Neighborhood Center. Once the weather breaks, my son and I will be visiting the Forsyth Park almost daily. We have outstanding Parks and Recreation programs in the City of Kingston that I think too many of us take for granted. It serves many families and our seniors with day camps, drop in centers, organized trips, educational programs, etc. Even for a city our size to have a YMCA/YWCA is very fortunate – note that our neighbor, the City of Poughkeepsie, has lost theirs. These are all opportunities that are low cost to no cost that we should be proud of. Additionally, so much work is being done to improve our waterfront and increase pedestrian and boat traffic, that there will be even more promising opportunities on the horizon. The quality of life that is offered by our community is outstanding for a community our size.
We should embrace our location as a mid-point to Albany and NYC and better promote Kingston within the context of a regional Hudson Valley economy. That means coordinating marketing and economic development efforts between adjacent communities and counties. The reality of living in the Hudson Valley is that many workers must commute to find work and bedroom communities are scattered throughout. A recent study showed upwards of one-third of our workforce leaves Ulster County for employment. Kingston maintains small town charm in a city environment with access to comprehensive city services such as sanitation, professional police and fire services, two hospitals, and good schools.
AZ: Some residents have expressed a need for Kingston to file for bankruptcy as a way to get some fiscal breathing room and allow contracts to be renegotiated. Do you support such a move? Why or why not?
JF: With all due respect to the authors of the bankruptcy proposal, I disagree with the premise that bankruptcy is a viable option. The city is not near our borrowing capacity and maintains a relatively favorable credit rating; overall a sound financial position for a community of our size and upstate location. It is unlikely that the state would agree to assume our liabilities given our financial outlook. We also would be damaging our ability to plan for future needs, such as revitalizing the mid-town corridor and upgrading our aging infrastructure. A bankruptcy would mean our credit (and reputation) is destroyed.
While it is true that employee wages and benefits consumes three-fourths of our budget, this is the nature of government as a service providing institution. Most of what we do is perform services which are labor intensive. It is my opinion that sometimes our employment contracts are used as an excuse to avoid issues. A leaner government will mean creative problem solving for all of us and I don’t believe that approach has been fully capitalized on. Employee relations have become entirely too political and sensationalized in the media. Our workforce as a whole does an incredible job with fewer resources than ever and deserves our praise. Many of these employees live in the City of Kingston and contribute to our quality of life off the job as taxpayers, homeowners, coaches, volunteers, and good neighbors. Each contract should be renegotiated in the next few years with an eye towards fairness for the employees who are doing more with less and a recognition that our tax base is declining.
AZ: Residents have expressed publicly and privately that your election into office reflects a need for new thinking and new perspectives in city government. Do you agree with this? If yes, how do you implement some of that fresh perspective?
JF: It is always important to allow for new ideas and voices to enter our policymaking dialog. As a new councilmember I will always strive to bring transparency and openness to the process of the Common Council. I will begin holding monthly Ward meetings to better solicit input and ideas from the residents of the 5th Ward beginning in February.
AZ: Could you list three of the best reasons to live and work in Kingston?
JF: The eclectic mix of people that live here and charm of our historic neighborhoods.
It is also important for me to live somewhere where I can walk to the park, to the gym, to church, to the convenience store and my location offers many opportunities.
I appreciate the many great parks and recreation activities for my family and close proximity to natural areas. This is a great community to raise a family.