This is the third of three pieces to help residents get to know their incoming Alderman with insight on those helping to shape our neighborhoods and common council in 2010.
Arthur Zackziewicz: What do you see as the top, long-term challenges facing the City of Kingston?
Hayes Clement: An unsustainable tax burden – on both homeowners and businesses. We’ve got to fundamentally reorient the mindset of local governments – city, school and county — from their current holy grail, keeping your annual tax increase as small as possible, to one that actually plots a path toward reducing your taxes, as difficult as that is in New York State.
City Hall, for one, has made real progress on the budget front this past year, but still more discipline, creativity and tough decisions are going to be required to bring spending into line with the simple economic realities of where we stand today: a declining population, shrinking household income levels and very shaky employment and housing markets. Old news? Not if you were a stranger to Kingston and had been ordered to describe the city using only our annual budget as your guide. Some of our expenses, particularly in the realm of employee benefits and pensions (fully $11 million of a $35 million annual budget), are truly sobering. And that’s before you even get to the “real” money – the equivalent tabs for public schools and county government. At the end of the day, when potential newcomers consider the total tax burden attached to setting up home or shop in Kingston, the results of the exercise too often shout “no way” – especially for prospective business investors.
Our “homestead/non-homestead” tax policy, which taxes commercial properties at significantly higher rates than homes, is in dire need of rethinking. It is steadily eroding the city’s commercial tax base and private-sector job market – literally emptying entire blocks of storefronts — and practically begs business owners to consider greener pastures, an especially dangerous gambit when that greener pasture might be found just a few hundred feet down Albany Avenue in the Town of Ulster.
The immediate source of distress for many tax payers remains, of course, the citywide property revaluation conducted by the city and GAR Associates several years ago. While serious flaws and inequities are apparent in the results produced so far, I consider this a near-term, not long-term, problem and one that has to be fixed, also in the near-term, in favor of over-assessed property owners.
A disproportionate share of poverty and its related problems. For years, we’ve all heard or read the complaint that indigent families in need of public assistance are routinely “dumped” in Ulster County by other less charitable (and less law-abiding) communities, from as far away as Pennsylvania. Based on my own conversations with veteran social-service and law-enforcement professionals in the area, I think the accusation is a credible one — certainly credible enough to warrant a full investigation by County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach and local Department of Social Services officials. If an investigation yields substantive evidence of the illegal practice, the county should forward the matter to the state Attorney General or other officials for help in halting the practice and seeking financial redress. If an investigation yields nothing, a finding to that effect might at least help dispel a pervasive local suspicion.
One thing is indisputable, though, in terms of poverty’s migration: Once here, the great majority of Ulster County “safety net” recipients settle in Kingston, for obvious reasons (public transportation, proximity to service agencies, etc.) but with serious financial consequences for Kingston tax payers. Alone among 62 counties in New York State, Ulster County requires that the home city or township of a safety-net recipient bear half the cost of those benefits, with the state providing the other half. In every other county, the funding formula splits the cost 50-50 between the state and the county, regardless of the recipient’s city of residence. The consequences of this for Kingston start with a sizable and growing financial burden — $1.2 million in safety net spending this year, up from $400,000 seven years ago — that by every right should be spread county-wide but, instead, is borne solely by Kingston tax payers. Not only do we take in the county’s disadvantaged, we take on the entire local portion of the bill, solo, for meeting that challenge. For Kingston at this stage, the money, the jobs and the sheer tally of local lives all caught up in the safety net are of such a scale that “poverty” is not just a local problem anymore, it’s a local industry, too . . . . and a growing one. Many of its enterprises are well-respected and successful; its “executive ranks” include some of the best and brightest leaders in Kingston; and most of its clients are deserving and law-abiding neighbors, no doubt. But none of that obliges Kingston to politely ignore the obvious: “Poverty, the industry” also reaches deep into the city’s real-estate market, driving demand for subdivided houses, changing the character of entire neighborhoods, and often undermining public safety, quality of life and, ultimately, our ability to attract other new residents and businesses. In the wake of recent and disturbing street crimes, the plainly visible deterioration of more Kingston neighborhoods, and Ulster County’s continued refusal to do the right thing and cover its safety net obligations, it’s time for Kingston to take a compassionate but clear-headed new look at local poverty, and confront a delicate but urgent question: How big a burden can one struggling city be expected to bear on behalf of other communities, and at what cost to its own quality of life and its own future?
An aging infrastructure. It’s awful to contemplate, but today’s woes might pale in comparison to the fiscal challenges coming at us in the next decade, with millions of dollars in capital improvements required to make over crumbling streets and sidewalks and, more ominously, rebuild much of our century-old sewer system. Getting through it all, at the lowest possible cost, will require, for starters, that the mayor and Common Council maintain both our strong municipal bond rating and the credibility with lenders that comes from setting conservative annual spending plans and sticking to them.
Embarrassingly low standards – when it comes to so many aspects of our shared civic life: the quality of services we demand for our tax dollars, the caliber of behavior we’re willing to tolerate on public streets, the general appearance and cleanliness of entire blocks and neighborhoods, to name but a few. I’m always struck by an insight you often hear from plugged-in Kingstonians, the very people you would call the city’s boosters. It goes like this: “Sure that’s a problem here, but we’re in far better shape on that score than Newburgh.” (or Poughkeepsie, or Middletown – take your pick) It’s a response that’s accurate for just about any problem being discussed, no doubt, and let’s hope it remains so. But if “not-as-bad-as-over-THERE” is going to be our benchmark for survival, let alone success, we’re all in deep trouble.
Upstate New York has enormous challenges on many fronts, but Kingston has unique assets that set it far apart from other cities in the region. We lose sight of this all too quickly, especially in an economic climate that serves up setbacks and disappointments on a weekly basis. It’s a mistake. The best-laid plans for more prosperous times are usually laid well ahead of their arrival. We need to focus on getting our act together now, ahead of an economic upturn, by re-focusing on the basics: cleaning up the city, cracking down on crime and blight, and cutting back on a cost structure that’s outgrown our ability to pay for it. If we do this, and steadily raise our expectations to better match our gifts, we can lay the foundation for a safer, more affordable and more attractive Kingston that can very logically become the gotta-visit, the gotta-move-to community in the Hudson Valley, a Kingston that legitimately plays in the same league as a Savannah, Ga., or a Burlington, Vt., or an Asheville, N.C. – take your pick — when it comes to luring new investment, not a Kingston that measures itself by the yardstick of Newburgh.
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?
HC: Of the many opportunities open to Kingston, I think a few stand out as particularly plausible over the next 2-3 years:
• We can make better strategic use of UPAC as the potential economic anchor for Midtown, ensuring that its doors remain open and able to deliver 1,200 regular concert-goers to new and existing restaurants and bars throughout the calendar year. Redevelopment of the adjacent King’s Inn site as a large mixed-use live/work loft-style complex for artists, musicians and production technologists would bring a healthy new sense of life and activity to the area and help drive awareness of an already significant, but hidden, professional music scene in Kingston.
• We can leverage the experience and hard work of the KingstonDigitalCorridor.org initiative in other fields of potential economic growth, using local entrepreneurs to sell Kingston peer to peer within their industries. One example: a targeted, grass-roots effort aimed at luring select art-supply manufacturers and working artists from Brooklyn or other locales, drawing on the embedded experience and customer traffic of R&F Paints, Bailey Ceramics and the Shirt Factory.
• We can devise a “green” strategy that focuses on job creation. Ongoing efforts by City Hall and the Conservation Advisory Council continue to help reduce our collective impact on the environment. That’s great. But we should give equal priority to devising a front-and-center role for Kingston in the region’s Solar Energy Consortium, both as a pilot site for solar installations on public buildings and, better yet, as a target locale for consortium-backed startups, via tax breaks and other incentives. What better way to demonstrate the urban applications for solar power or the benefits of recycling on a mammoth scale than through the conversion of empty commercial buildings into manufacturing sites for solar technology?
• We can finally develop a new comprehensive plan for Kingston, one that untangles, updates and spells out zoning laws, zoning overlays, historic designations and reasonable design standards for Midtown and Uptown, much as we’ve recently done for Downtown. This is essential not only to protect the heritage, charm and integrity of our neighborhoods (the biggest and best currency we’ve got when it comes to economic development!) but also to attract new investment. The developers who reject Kingston as a place to invest don’t do so because we’re overly fussy about historic preservation; they by-pass Kingston because our planning process is perceived as non-transparent, unpredictable and ad hoc. Making it less so will only help preserve our heritage and grow our tax base.
• We can radically improve the first impression we make with visitors — by easily extending the popular U.S. 209 rail trail from Hurley all the way into Uptown, and further remaking the Washington Avenue corridor with open green space and proper landscaping in place of abandoned gas stations. (Our own civic pride could use the visual boost, too.)
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?
HC: Bankruptcy is probably not an option for Kingston, practically speaking, since taking that route would require approval by the state legislature and only after our “taxing capacity” was exhausted. By the predictable logic of Albany, Kingston’s municipal tax levy is still well below what we could legally force property owners to cough up in order to remain solvent, so until taxes are raised to Mt. Everest levels and we’re scrounging for the last nickels and dimes beneath homeowners’ sofa cushions, don’t count on Albany to entertain the notion of a Kingston bankruptcy.
And I’m fine with that. I didn’t seek a seat on the Common Council in order to help preside at a municipal bankruptcy. And I think every member of the Council would consider that particular outcome a singular mark of failure on his or her resume.
That said, the financial situation we face is extraordinarily serious. Correcting it will depend, in large part, on how we approach the renegotiation of union contracts for police, fire and DPW and City Hall professionals set to expire at the end of 2011. The mayor has indicated he plans to include members of the Common Council in various stages of discussion and negotiation with the three unions, and I think that’s the right approach, particularly since contract wage and benefits agreements for city employees and retirees represent fully 75% of the city’s $35 million annual budget. Whatever terms finally emerge from the negotiation process, it won’t qualify as a success overall, in my book, unless several key “wins” are achieved for tax payers:
• New flexibility on the part of both union members and management in the way departments are manned and job responsibilities are defined, with a particular emphasis on putting more police officers on the street at critical times each day, and cross-training more firefighters to act as building-code enforcement teams during otherwise idle periods.
• Realistic contributions by employees toward their health-care plans
• Salary and pension schedules, going forward, that recognize and respect hard – often hazardous – work performed by professionals, but also bear some semblance to the realities of the typical Kingston tax payer who’s struggling to foot the bill.
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?
HC: * I certainly like to think my election signals openness to new approaches on the part of voters. I’m sure my two other fellow freshmen on the Council agree. Delivering on that promise will depend, in large part, on our powers of resistance – namely the ability to resist giving in to conventional wisdom and the accepted pattern of how things are, once we’ve been on the Council a few more months. Complacency, or even abundant patience, are not what you want in a Council member these days.
AZ: Could you list three of the best reasons to live and work in Kingston?
HC: Small businesses that give great service, break the generic cookie-cutter mold and prove, despite all the challenges, that Kingston can attract and sustain entrepreneurs. My list of favorites includes Eng’s, Seven21 Media, Oxclove, Signature Fitness, Fleisher’s, Tonner Doll, Madden’s Wine & Spirits, Savonna’s, Monkey Joe’s, Stone Soup, Smith Printing and BestPlaces2Move.com.
* Our proximity to the Hudson River, the Catskills and New York City – for my money, perhaps the three most extraordinary features of the North American landscape.
* The quality and variety of our amazing – and reasonably priced — housing stock. Where else but in Kingston could you visit one street, Fair, and in the space of a 10-minute walk observe at least one example of every single significant period in American architecture, starting in the late 1600s with a stone meeting house and proceeding through all the great design eras — Gothic, Greek Revival, Victorian, Italianate, Colonial Revival, Tudor, and other more obscure styles – all the way to a 1960s ranch house?