Planning Board sees no potential impact on character of Stockade District by Kingstonian Project (with video)

Rendering by Mackenzie Architects.

By Marissa Marvelli

Since the first renderings of the proposed Kingstonian project were released in late 2017, many citizens have expressed strong concerns about how the unprecedentedly large mixed-use development would impact the character and integrity of the Stockade Historic District. At over 218,000 gross square feet spread across two buildings containing 143 units of housing, a 32-room hotel, 8,000 square feet of retail space and a new pedestrian plaza, all of which is piled on top of a parking garage, the development will dwarf all other buildings in the small district. Numerous of you spoke at hearings and submitted comments requesting that the Kingston Planning Board take a “hard look” at this potential impact with the hope that its adverse effects could be mitigated through the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process. Historic resources and “community character” are included in the definition of “environment” in SEQR. 

“Is the proposed action inconsistent with the predominant architectural scale and character?” Without hesitation, the Planning Board unanimously agreed that the development will have little or no impact on the character of the Stockade District. 

This question was among the dozens of questions that the Board answered in the course of reviewing Part 2 of the Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) for the SEQR process at their special meeting on November 6. Oddly, the form was completed by the applicant instead of by the lead agency, the Planning Board, as SEQR rules require. By having the applicant do the agency’s homework for them, the Planning Board effectively unburdened themselves of applying critical thought to the questions at hand. Instead, they simply affirmed or tweaked the applicant’s assumptions about their project’s impact—whether the individual impacts will be small or moderate to large.

The aforementioned question regarding character is one of seven raised in section 18 of the Part 2 form which evaluates impacts to community character. The EAF Workbook defines community character as “all the man-made and natural features of the area. It includes the visual character of a town, village, or city, and its visual landscape; but also includes the buildings and structures and their uses, the natural environment, activities, town services, and local policies that are in place. These combine to create a sense of place or character that defines the area. Changes to the type and intensity of land use, housing, public services, aesthetic quality, and to the balance between residential and commercial uses can all change community character. Most proposed actions will result in some change in community character.”

In the Planning Board’s unanimous opinion, none of the resources mentioned above will be impacted by the Kingstonian. How they reached this conclusion without at least defining the existing community character is perplexing. It is like a jury rendering a not guilty verdict without discussing the evidence. 

Continued below

From the Full Environmental Assessment Form Workbook

a. The proposed action may replace or eliminate existing facilities, structures, or areas of historic importance to the community.
Community character is, in part, influenced by the buildings and structures that exist in a community. Historic structures are especially influential on the character of the built environment. Whenever existing buildings and structures are replaced or removed, the character of the street, neighborhood, district or entire community can change. For example, replacing a traditional three-story main street structure having parking in the rear with a modern concrete block structure having parking the front could significantly change the character of the street. In some communities the character is also influenced by entire blocks, streets, or neighborhoods that may be altered by a project. Removal or replacement can significantly change the function, look, and economics of an area.

— What specific buildings or structures are to be replaced or eliminated? If so, what is proposed in its place?
— Is the new structure of similar scale, siting, design, and function?
— Is there a designated historic district impacted? How will that change?
— Will the proposed project change the ratio of street width to building height? For example, are narrow streets having buildings set close to the road being replaced by wider streets with buildings having deep front setbacks?

Will there be an impact?
If no facilities, structures or areas of historic importance to the community are being replaced or eliminated, then there will be no related impacts. However, many proposed actions will result in some change in community character. There are probably few that will result in no change at all. Examples of actions that may not affect community character include passage of a local law that is not related to land use, or other discretionary actions that require SEQR but that do not result in building or development. Another example may be infill development that is consistent with the style and character of the neighborhood. Check ‘No, or small impact may occur.

Small Impact:
A small impact could occur under one or more of these circumstances:
— The visual character of the area is changed in a minor way but is generally consistent in the design, placement, size, streetscape, intensity and architecture of the neighborhood or community.
— The balance between retail commercial uses and residential uses does not change in a significant way.
— The proposed project is a land use that is similar to others that can be found in the neighborhood or area.

Moderate to Large Impact:
A moderate to large impact could occur under one or more of these circumstances:
— The proposed project moderately or significantly changes the visual character of the area.
— The proposed project is of a larger scale than currently exists in the area.
— New building design, lot layout, streetscapes, or intensity of use is in sharp contrast to that which exists.
— The project introduces a land use that is inconsistent or in sharp contrast with surrounding land uses.
— The project introduces odors, lights, noise, or traffic to an area in a way that is different than currently exists.

It was not as if the Planning Board was trying to avoid identifying moderate to large impacts altogether. With relation to construction grading and demolition, stormwater runoff, visual impact on aesthetic resources, and impact on archaeological resources, they appeared comfortable stating that the project may have moderate to large impacts.

By concluding that the Kingstonian will have little or no impact on the character of the district, the Planning Board is essentially saying that buildings of the size, scale, type, density, and architectural style as the Kingstonian already exist in the district. They are also essentially stating that there will be no change to the historic development pattern; that closing a street and altering the natural topography of the the 362-year-old settlement—a key feature of the historic district’s significance—to accommodate a parking garage entrance on Fair Street Extension are inconsequential impacts. It also sets a precedent for future development of this scale in the Stockade Historic District.

Such conclusions are denialist. 

They ignore the concerns that were expressed by two preservation agencies: the New York State Historic Preservation Office and Kingston Historic Landmarks Preservation Commission (HLPC) before it was gutted. (Soon after raising their concerns in March, two members of the HLPC—a licensed architect and myself, a professional preservationist—were removed by Mayor Steve Noble and replaced with less experienced individuals. Two other HLPC members resigned in protest of his action.) They also ignore the many of you who have expressed similar concerns in testimony at meetings and written comments.

By concluding that this development poses little or no impact on the character of the district, the Planning Board has shut down the opportunity to assess, debate, and potentially mitigate it beyond the tiny tweaks to the architecture that the now weakened HLPC may request in its routine review.

After going through the EAF Part 2 form, the Planning Board discussed their calendar of meetings. Board member Robert Jacobsen suggested that they schedule another public hearing on this project at their regularly scheduled meeting on Monday November 18 so that they can show that there are “no backroom deals” as if another hearing is supposed to convince citizens that this has been a transparent and inclusive process. Apparently the developers of the Kingstonian also desire this hearing. 

They tentatively scheduled a discussion of the EAF Part 3 on Monday December 2 in which they will decide if the moderate-to-large impacts identified are significant, whether impacts will be avoided or substantially mitigated, and whether or not to require an environmental impact statement. 

What can you do? While the Planning Board’s final decision has seemed predetermined from the very beginning of this review process, residents can attend the public hearing on the Kingstonian project at the upcoming Planning Board meeting on November 18 at 6:00pm at Kingston City Hall (Council Chambers). The Planning Board is requesting input as it pertains to the 14 affordable units and the potential environmental impacts, however, according to the agenda, public comment made that evening will not be included in the official record of the review process for this project.  

Therefore we suggest that you use this opportunity to let the Planning Board know what you think about their “transparent and inclusive” environmental review process, as this will probably be the final public hearing for the Kingstonian project before the board makes a determination, most likely in December.

Marissa Marvelli is a historic preservation specialist.

Part one of two – Kingstonian Special Meeting 11/6/19

2:35  Public comment by Sarah Wenk (Kingston resident), who expressed concerns about the EAF not having been amended to reflect all of the changes.

7:25  Kingstonian development team representative Joe Bonura, Jr. outlines the changes to the Kingstonian project. “We’ve been trying to find ways to include affordable housing from the beginning.”

8:20   Bonura: “We added a story to the building that has only seven units…the other seven units were made out of converting existing units inside.”

12:45  Frank A. Filiciotto, PE, of Creighton Manning discusses traffic studies and impacts.  

DOCUMENT:  Creighton Manning response to traffic comments for The Kingstonian.

DOCUMENT: Creighton Manning Updated Trip Generation Evaluation for The Kingstonian.

16:49  Kingstonian engineer consultant Dennis Larios on water and sewer impacts. 

20:39  Bonura explains that they are making the project sustainable by including efficient toilets, showers and sinks.

21:09  Larios discusses drinking water, water use, visual impact and stormwater. 

22:47  Planning Board chair Wayne Platt asks if the board received results from their  independent traffic studies consultant.

23:40   Platt: “Even though it’s not a requirement under zoning, how/why did you arrive to include affordable housing into your project?”

“…when we were originally asked to look at this project…affordable housing, while important, wasn’t as important as it is now.”
“…as we got the architecture to the point where we thought, ‘we’re there’, we came to the epiphany where we realized affordable housing was really important.”
“…we are reaching into our pockets to make the affordable units possible.”

30:20  Platt: “Explain the impact of the additional units to the parking garage.”

“We are not reserving any more spaces for the new units. There will be 129 parking spots for the project. We foresee the need for people moving into this building not needing as many cars (due to proximity to services)…”

32:30  Bonura provides a unit count: (9) studios, (65) 1-bedrooms, (60) 2-bedrooms, and (10) 3-bedrooms.   

33:00  Planning Board member Jacobson asks about the closing of Fair Street.

34:15  Michael Moriello, the attorney for the applicant, argues that the EAF Part 1 does not need to be amended to reflect changes to the project scope.

35:50  Moriello presents a “submittal” to the Planning Board that addresses the site plan and special use permit impacts as per Kingston’s zoning. “Meld themselves with the SEQR issue.”

37:30  Bonura: “Our target market for this building are seniors… Seniors often drive less, use fewer vehicles or don’t have a vehicle at all. …Parking rates will match the City’s.”

42:06  City Planning Director Suzanne Cahill begins reading the EAF Part 2 form line by line to review the applicant’s opinion on individual impacts, whether they will be small or moderate/large.

EAF Part 2 for Kingstonian Project:

1.  Impact on Land

a. The proposed action may involve construction on land where depth to water table is less than 3 feet.
No/Small impact

b. The proposed action may involve construction on slopes of 15% or greater.
Moderate / Large

c. The proposed action may involve construction on land where bedrock is exposed, or generally within 5 feet of existing ground surface.
No / Small Impact

d. The proposed action may involve the excavation and removal of more than 1,000 tons of natural material.
No / Small impact

e. The proposed action may involve construction that continues for more than one year or in multiple phases.
Moderate / Large Impact   

f. The proposed action may result in increased erosion, whether from physical disturbance or vegetation removal (including from treatment by herbicides).
Small / Moderate

g. The proposed action is, or may be, located within a Coastal Erosion hazard area.
No / Small

h. Other impacts: Construction, grading and demolition.
The applicant marked: No / Small. The Planning Department disagreed: Moderate / Large

2. Impact on Geological Features

The proposed action may result in the modification or destruction of, or inhibit  access to, any unique or unusual land forms on the site.
 No / Small (Skip) 

3. Impacts on Surface Water

 a. The proposed action may create a new water body.
No / Small

 b. The proposed action may result in an increase or decrease of over 10% or more than a 10 acre increase or decrease in the surface area of any body of water.
No / Small

c. The proposed action may involve dredging more than 100 cubic yards of material from a wetland or water body.
No / Small

d. The proposed action may involve construction within or adjoining a freshwater or tidal wetland, or in the bed or banks of any other water body.
No / Small

e. The proposed action may create turbidity in a waterbody, either from upland erosion, runoff or by disturbing bottom sediments.
No / Small

 f. The proposed action may include construction of one or more intake(s) for withdrawal of water from surface water.    
No / Small

g. The proposed action may include construction of one or more outfall(s) for discharge of wastewater to surface water(s).
No / Small  

h. The proposed action may cause soil erosion, or otherwise create a source of stormwater discharge that may lead to siltation or other degradation of receiving water bodies. (Esopus Creek)
Applicant: No / Small. Planning Board: Moderate / Large. The applicant’s stormwater study will be appended to the form to allow it to go back to ‘No/Small’ impact.

i. The proposed action may affect the water quality of any water bodies within or downstream of the site of the proposed action.
No / Small Impact

 j. The proposed action may involve the application of pesticides or herbicides in or around any water body.
No / Small Impact

k. The proposed action may require the construction of new, or expansion of existing, wastewater treatment facilities.
No / Small

4. Impact on Groundwater

a. The proposed action may require new water supply wells, or create additional demand on supplies from existing water supply wells.

b. Water supply demand from the proposed action may exceed safe and sustainable withdrawal capacity rate of the local supply or aquifer.
No / Small

c. The proposed action may allow or result in residential uses in areas without water and sewer services.

d. The proposed action may include or require wastewater discharged to groundwater.

e. The proposed action may result in the construction of water supply wells in locations where groundwater is, or is suspected to be contaminated.

f. The proposed action may require the bulk storage of petroleum or chemical products over ground water or an aquifer.

g. The proposed action may involve the commercial application of pesticides within 100 feet of potable drinking water or irrigation sources.

h. Other impacts

5. Impact on Flooding

a. The proposed action may result in development in a designated floodway.
No / Small

b. The proposed action may result in development within a 100 year floodplain.
No / Small

c. The proposed action may result in development within a 500 year floodplain.
Moderate / Large.  

Part two of two – Kingstonian Special Meeting 11/6/19

(Continued from above)

d. The proposed action may result in, or require, modification of existing drainage patterns.
Applicant: No / Small. Planning Department: Moderate / Large. Project engineer Dennis Larios thinks it’s small. After a vote, Planning Board: No / Small

e. The proposed action may change flood water flows that contribute to flooding.
No / Small

f. If there is a dam located on the site of the proposed action, is the dam in need of repair, or upgrade?
No / Small

6. Impacts on Air

No / Small (Skip)

7. Impact on Plants and Animals

a. The proposed action may cause reduction in population or loss of individuals of any threatened or endangered species, as listed by New York State or the Federal government, that use the site, or are found on, over, or near the site.
No / Small. Attach survey provided to us for flora/fauna. 

b. The proposed action may result in a reduction or degradation of any habitat used by any rare, threatened or endangered species, as listed by New York State or the federal government.
No / Small

c. The proposed action may cause reduction in population, or loss of individuals, of any species of special concern or conservation need, as listed by New York State or the Federal government, that use the site, or are found on, over, or near the site.
No / Small

d. The proposed action may result in a reduction or degradation of any habitat used by any species of special concern and conservation need, as listed by New York State or the Federal government.
No / Small

e. The proposed action may diminish the capacity of a registered National Natural Landmark.
No / Small

f. The proposed action may result in the removal of, or ground disturbance in, any portion of a designated significant natural community.
No / Small

g. The proposed action may substantially interfere with nesting/breeding, foraging, or over-wintering habitat for the predominant species that occupy or use the project site.
No / Small

h. The proposed action requires the conversion of more than 10 acres of forest, grassland or any other regionally or locally important habitat.
No / Small

i. Proposed action (commercial, industrial or recreational projects, only) involves use of herbicides or pesticides.
No / Small

j. Other impacts: wildlife displacement and street trees.
Applicant: No / Small. Planning Department says their reports will address it.

8. Impact on Agricultural Resources

No / Small (Skip)

9. Impact on Aesthetic Resources

The land use of the proposed action are obviously different from, or are in sharp contrast to, current land use patterns between the proposed project and a scenic or aesthetic resource. 

a. Proposed action may be visible from any officially designated federal, state, or local scenic or aesthetic resource. (Senate House and the Stockade Historic District)
Moderate / Large

b. The proposed action may result in the obstruction, elimination or significant screening of one or more officially designated scenic views.
Applicant: No / Small. Planning Department: Moderate / large. Larios: “What is an officially designated view? We are obstructing the view coming down Wall Street to the foothills, but nothing designated. ” Planning Board: No / Small

c. The proposed action may be visible from publicly accessible vantage points: i. Seasonally (e.g., screened by summer foliage, but visible during other seasons) ii. Year round
Moderate / Large

d. The situation or activity in which viewers are engaged while viewing the proposed action is: i. Routine travel by residents, including travel to and from work ii. Recreational or tourism based activities.
No / Small

e. The proposed action may cause a diminishment of the public enjoyment and appreciation of the designated aesthetic resource.
No / Small

f. There are similar projects visible within the following distance of the proposed project: 0-1/2 mile 1⁄2 -3 mile 3-5 mile 5+ mile.
No / Small

g. Other impacts:  Visual context of the  historic district
Moderate / Large

10. Impact on Historic and Archeological Resources

The proposed action may occur in or adjacent to a historic or archaeological resource. (Part 1. E.3.e, f. and g.)

a. The proposed action may occur wholly or partially within, or substantially contiguous to, any buildings, archaeological site or district which is listed on the National or State Register of Historical Places, or that has been determined by the Commissioner of the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation to be eligible for listing on the State Register of Historic Places.
Moderate / Large

b. The proposed action may occur wholly or partially within, or substantially contiguous to, an area designated as sensitive for archaeological sites on the NY State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) archaeological site inventory.
Moderate / Large

c. The proposed action may occur wholly or partially within, or substantially contiguous to, an archaeological site not included on the NY SHPO inventory.
Applicant: No / Small. Planning Department: Moderate / Large with archaeologist Joe Diamond’s report attached. “He will be on site during excavation. There’s been some Native American activity.”  Larios: “But that’s all of Ulster County.” Planning Board: No / Small

e. If any of the above (a-d) are answered “Moderate to large impact may occur”, continue with the following questions to help support conclusions in Part 3:

  1. The proposed action may result in the destruction or alteration of all or part of the site or property.
    Moderate / Large
  2. The proposed action may result in the alteration of the property’s setting or integrity.
    Moderate / Large
  3. The proposed action may result in the introduction of visual elements which are out of character with the site or property, or may alter its setting.
    Moderate / Large

11. Impact on Open Space and Recreation

No / Small (Skip)

12. Impact on Critical Environmental Areas

The proposed action may be located within or adjacent to a critical NO YES environmental area (CEA). (See Part 1. E.3.d)

No / Small (Skip)

13. Impact on Transportation

The proposed action may result in a change to existing transportation systems. (See Part 1. D.2.j)

a. Projected traffic increase may exceed capacity of existing road network.
No / Small

b. The proposed action may result in the construction of paved parking area for 500 or more vehicles.
No / Small

d. The proposed action will degrade existing pedestrian or bicycle accommodations.
No / Small

e. The proposed action may alter the present pattern of movement of people or goods.
Moderate / Large

f. Other impacts:  Closing off Fair Street Extension
Moderate / Large. The Planning Department states that they will attach the Creighton Manning and HVAA reports. 

14. Impact on Energy

The proposed action may cause an increase in the use of any form of energy. (See Part 1. D.2.k)

a. The proposed action will require a new, or an upgrade to an existing, substation.
No / Small

b. The proposed action will require the creation or extension of an energy transmission or supply system to serve more than 50 single or two-family residences or to serve a commercial or industrial use.
No / Small

c. The proposed action may utilize more than 2,500 MW hrs per year of electricity.
No / Small

d. The proposed action may involve heating and/or cooling of more than 100,000 square feet of building area when completed.
No / Small.

15. Impact on Noise, Odor, and Light

The proposed action may result in an increase in noise, odors, or outdoor lighting. 

a. The proposed action may produce sound above noise levels established by local regulation.
Applicant: No / Small. Planning Department: Moderate/Large, though temporary due to construction. “They’ll need a noise permit from the city as a routine measure.” Planning Board: No / Small. 

b. The proposed action may result in blasting within 1,500 feet of any residence, hospital, school, licensed day care center, or nursing home.
No / Small

c. The proposed action may result in routine odors for more than one hour per day.
No / Small

d. The proposed action may result in light shining onto adjoining properties.
No / Small

e. The proposed action may result in lighting creating sky-glow brighter than existing area conditions.
No / Small

16. Impact on Human Health

The proposed action may have an impact on human health from exposure.

No / Small. “Attach asbestos work report that it has been removed from the Herzog Building.” Moriello asked about digging up solid or hazardous waste. Larios: “Only old footings from Montgomery Ward, old Parking Garage and Herzog building.”

17. Consistency with Community Plans

The proposed action is not consistent with adopted land use plans. 

a. The proposed action’s land use components may be different from, or in sharp contrast to, current surrounding land use pattern(s).
No / Small. 

b. The proposed action will cause the permanent population of the city, town or village in which the project is located to grow by more than 5%.
No / Small

c. The proposed action is inconsistent with local land use plans or zoning regulations.
No / Small

d. The proposed action is inconsistent with any County plans, or other regional land use plans.
No / Small

e. The proposed action may cause a change in the density of development that is not supported by existing infrastructure or is distant from existing infrastructure.
No / Small

f. The proposed action is located in an area characterized by low density development that will require new or expanded public infrastructure.
No / Small

g. The proposed action may induce secondary development impacts (e.g., residential or commercial development not included in the proposed action).
No / Small

h. Other: The proposed action requires a zoning change for this site
No / Small

18. Consistency with Community Character

No / Small (Skip)

37:18  The Planning Board discusses a public hearing on the proposed changes to the application. “I think we’ve been open with all of our meetings with the community, we haven’t hid or had any back room meetings. I think in transparency, one more meeting, I’m fine with…and the record is what it is”  Board Member Jacobson.

42:20  The Planning Board tables both Kingstonian items. Sets a public hearing for November 18th. Another special meeting is discussed for December 2nd.

The Kingston Planning Board Must Require the Kingstonian Applicant to Amend its Environmental Assessment Form to Reflect the Current Project

On Wednesday, November 6th at 6:00pm the Kingston Planning Board will hold a special planning board meeting on the Kingstonian project at City Hall in the Council Chambers.  

There will be an opportunity for the public to speak at the top of the meeting for any planning related topic. In the Planning Board’s agenda, the public is reminded that the Kingstonian is not listed as a public hearing.

This event will be filmed by The Kingston News and is brought to you by  

It is incumbent upon the Planning Board to conduct a thorough State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) on the Kingstonian application. The review must encompass the actual size and scope of the project as currently proposed. 

The Environmental Assessment Form (EAF) Part 1, prepared nearly a year ago in November 2018 by the applicant, describes a project that differs considerably from the project now before the Planning Board. Because the project has grown in scope and scale, the impacts are not accurately calculated in the EAF Part 1. The Planning Board must require the applicant to amend the EAF to reflect the project in its current iteration.

An EAF is “a form used by an agency to assist in determining the environmental significance or nonsignificance of actions. A properly completed EAF must contain enough information to describe the proposed action, its location, its purpose and its potential impacts on the environment.” 6 NYCRR 617.2(m) 

The applicant’s 2018 EAF states that the project will include 129 residential units. The latest announcement by the City touted 143 units. The EAF lists water use, energy use, wastewater output and solid waste output, which were presumably calculated based on the number of residential units. All of those figures must be revised to reflect the impacts of the current project proposal.

Further, the EAF does not accurately account for the new bulk of the project, which is essential to assessing its impacts on the visual environment, historic resources, and community character. The old EAF states that the largest building in the project will be 48 feet tall. The elevations submitted in August 2019 show the project to be six storiesor at least 60 feet tall. The changes announced in October would add an additional story, bringing the total to at least 70 feet (see the image above). 

Accurate statistics about the size and bulk of the building are essential for the Planning Board to determine whether it has the potential to create a significant adverse impact within its architectural context. SEQR regulations specifically call for an assessment of these types of impacts, including: “(iv) the creation of a material conflict with a community’s current plans or goals as officially approved or adopted; (v) the impairment of the character or quality of important historical, archeological, architectural, or aesthetic resources or of existing community or neighborhood character;” 6 NYCRR 617.7(c)(1)(iv-v) (emphasis added).

It has also come to light that the project will require one or more approvals that were not originally projected. In particular, the applicant has applied to the Common Council for a zoning amendment to extend the Mixed Use Overlay District to cover part of the project area. The zoning amendment is not listed among the necessary agency actions on the EAF. 

Failure to account for all components of the project can lead to illegal segmentation of the SEQR review. Failure to account for all impacts of the project risks producing a determination of significance that disables the relevant boards and commissions from addressing certain concerns in their subsequent reviews.

In sum, the lead agency must determine the significance of the proposed action based on a full and properly completed EAF. Given changes in the project and the failure to address the zoning change in the current EAF, the Planning Board does not currently have a full and complete EAF for the project as currently proposed. appreciates the developer’s recent inclusion of affordable housing. However, the increased building height in the revised plan only exacerbates the project’s adverse effects on what is an extraordinarily important historic district—for its history, its architecture, and as an economic driver. The State Historic Preservation Office has articulated strong concerns about these impacts. 

It is therefore even more important to complete a thorough and proper SEQR review. Once the EAF is revised to reflect the project in its current iteration, the Board must issue a Positive Declaration so that they can study—along with the community—potential mitigation of the significant adverse environmental impacts.

Additional Reading

READ: “Sign the Petition: Kingston Common Council must uphold its affordable housing mandate and provide constituents with a full accounting of Kingstonian public funds”

READ: “The Kingstonian to be Jointly Reviewed Tonight; State Preservation Office Finds ‘Adverse Effects’ in its Evaluation of the Project; Confusion about Historic District Boundaries”

READ: “SEQR Process for Kingstonian Project Possibly to be ‘Segmented’”

The Common Council’s Public Hearing on the Mayor’s 2020 Budget: Public Engagement Busy Work

By Hillary Harvey
Guest Editorial

LISTEN to Hillary Harvey on ‘The Source’: “What is the true purpose of the Common Council’s public hearing on the Mayor’s proposed 2020 budget?” (Starts at 52:09)

Standing in Kingston’s City Hall Common Council Chambers on September 24th, John Tuey, the City’s Comptroller, offered the roomful of citizens a general analysis of what a budget is and what it does.  This was the annual community budget forum – an initiative of the Noble Administration.  The City’s Comptroller is appointed by the Common Council but works with the Mayor on developing the budget.  After the forum, it was still unclear what the 2020 proposed budget contained.

Mayor Steve Noble then presented his proposed 2020 budget on October 17th.  The budget was available online the next day.  In his presentation, the Mayor primarily discussed what a budget generally does and offered basically a campaign speech about budgetary achievements of the past.  He outlined to the Common Council in a letter his highlights of the 2020 Recommended Budget: a 0% tax increase; the tax levy remains at about $17.65 million for the fifth year in a row; 0% increase in sewer rates; no layoffs; 12 full-time positions added or expanded including a full-time bilingual Clerk, a full-time Director of Arts & Cultural Affairs, three positions at DPW including a Tree Maintenance Technician; major infrastructure projects to be completed or underway in 2020; and a Low Fiscal Stress Score (6.7 out of 100). In the budget, the Mayor also proposed Wi-Fi in the Kingston parks, essential DPW equipment, a new fire engine, and a skatepark at Hasbrouck Park, among other things.  But the presentation wasn’t a line-by-line read of the 178-page budget document… thankfully.  

The line-by-line read began on October 28th at 6:30p when the Kingston Common Council’s Finance Committee held the first of several public meetings that week to discuss the budget and ask questions of departments such as the Kingston Police Department, the Department of Public Works, the Kingston Fire Department, and the Parks & Rec Department.  But at 6p that night, before those discussions began, the Common Council held a public hearing on the proposed budget.  Not surprisingly, only five people attended.  Of those, only two spoke: the DiFalcos, a political-hopeful power couple.  Ellen DiFalco is running for Mayor on the Republican and Independence Party lines.  Joe DiFalco is running for Ward 3 Alderman on the Republican and Independence Party lines.

The Common Council’s public hearing on the Mayor’s budget proposal was originally scheduled for Thursday, October 24th – the same night as the final Mayoral debate.  It was then rescheduled for Monday, October 28th.  The public notice in the paper was incorrect.  The notification on the City’s website initially didn’t mention what the hearing was on, and the agenda for it was blank.  When I asked the Council members about that, I was told that the hearing was on the budget, as the agenda indicated.  And when I pointed out that the agenda was blank, I was told that was because it was an open public hearing.

Here in Kingston, we have ample opportunity for public engagement busy work: surveys that don’t allow for comments and don’t relate to the topic specifically; participatory workshops and charrettes with facilitators who don’t buy into it and where the public feedback is never seen or discussed again; local committees whose feedback is used to simply justify an outcome that’s been predetermined by top-down leadership; and public hearings which happen before all the information on something is revealed.

How many people really know how to read a budget?

To make a truly informed comment during the Kingston Common Council’s public hearing on the Mayor’s proposed 2020 budget, prior to those more detailed discussions which will continue at the Council’s Finance Committee throughout the month of November, a member of the public would need to be skilled in reading a budget, knowledgeable about previous city budgets, and able to anticipate the future discussions, the Council members’ questions, and the forthcoming answers that will be happening throughout the Council’s public budget review process.  In short, they’re asking the public to achieve an unattainable level of understanding for a layperson and a measure of potentially supernatural foresight.

In my experience following the civic issues of Kingston, I have noticed that the citizens of Kingston have a diversity of experience, knowledge base, and interests which, when they can participate in the public discourse in a meaningful way, result in informed and intelligent discussions which can sometimes be challenging but also offer outside perspectives and considerations that can broaden the understanding of an insular group, like elected officials at City Hall.

Perhaps the public hearing on Monday was meant to get a sense of the concerns and needs of the Council’s constituents.  Something that could be achieved in Ward meetings, and calls for constituents to reach out directly to their alderperson.  

The Council should hold a second public hearing on the budget after their in-depth public discussions, so that they can benefit from the input of a fully informed public.  And if they prefer to hold only one public hearing on the budget, in the future that should happen after the Finance Committee’s discussions of the budget so the public can be as informed about the proposal as the Council itself is.  

A Question

What is the true purpose of the public hearing on the proposed budget?  And if the true purpose of the public hearing on the budget is to hear from an engaged, informed public, then how does the current process support that?  

As it stands, the Council’s public hearing process on the budget is like so many other processes we see in Kingston government: backwards – requiring that the lay citizens of Kingston have an expertise that many of the City officials and staff themselves may not have.  If the Council was seeking to simply check a box that they allowed the public an input period where they could feel heard, then that was achieved on Monday.  But if they’re seeking to actually hear from the public, then the public needs to be at least as informed about the proposal as the Council is itself.  And that will only come after the public discussions in the Finance Committee.  

The Council should reconsider this (perhaps historically so) flawed process and update it to be truly transparent and inclusive of the informed civic engagement that the citizens of Kingston have proven time and again they will participate in.

The Kingston Common Council’s Finance Committee will meet again at City Hall, 420 Broadway, on November 4th at 6:30p to discuss the Kingston Fire Department and Building Safety Budget, on November 6th at 6:30p to discuss the Parks & Rec budget, on November 18th at 6:30p to discuss the City Hall budget, and on November 25th at 6:30p to wrap up budget discussions before the December 3rd vote.

Hillary Harvey is a journalist who hosts, The Source on Radio Kingston, a civic issues show focused on hyper local news and politics to inform civic engagement.  An audio version of this editorial aired on November 1st and is available on the archive at (linked above).