Category: Politics of the Mid-Hudson Valley (page 1 of 2)

The End of Cheap Water

Aging Infrastructure is Driving Up Costs in the Hudson Valley

New York State has some of the oldest water and sewer networks in the country. But unlike roads and bridges, where we see the direct effects of what that means (like an axle-smashing pothole that causes accidents and lawsuits), leaking pipes are underground. We know that sometimes the water coming out of our faucets can be rusty or brown, that water main breaks can unexpectedly disrupt our commutes or errands, and that our water bills may have slowly increased through the years. But despite these impacts on our daily lives, we rarely recognize the connection to our aging infrastructure.

Or, as is the case in Flint, Michigan, and Newburgh, New York, we only know there’s a dire problem after the fact, when the water turns out to be poisonous.

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What We Lost When We Vetoed a Constitutional Convention

 

Calling a state constitutional convention is New York’s long established method for fundamental, systematic governmental reform. Yet in a period of pandemic corruption and enormous anger at government, with demands for change from all across the political spectrum, New Yorkers rejected the convention option by a margin of 5-1 this past November. In essence, if 2016 was a year of great demand for change, the regret set in quickly afterward, and 2017 became a year, at least in New York, of holding fast to a system that people perceived to be less frightening than yet more change.

Peter Galie and Gerald Benjamin, co-authors with Christopher Bopst of New York’s Broken Constitution, and strong convention advocates, sat down a few weeks after the election for a post mortem. The reasons for the crushing defeat of the convention question, they thought, were both structural and political. Most voters didn’t even know there is a state constitution; they don’t distinguish between it and the revered national document, which most of them certainly don’t want to be touched in an era in which basic rights are threatened. New York has no initiative process; referenda are limited in use and unfamiliar to many as a way of making decisions. The wording of the convention question, mandated in the constitution for use every twenty years, requires that everything be on the table if a convention is called.

This scares those who have constitutionally guaranteed benefits or favored policies that they don’t want to risk.

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Elected Officials and Social Media Use: Should There be Rules?

Social Media can make government better, more accessible, more transparent, more accountable, all good things. But when elected officials decide that government social media accounts are theirs to use as they please, we may be in very different territory. Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum reminded us of that this week.

In 2015 the Benjamin Center studied how local governments in the Mid-Hudson region use their websites and social media. We found that nearly 97 percent of the towns, villages, and cities of the region had some digital presence. At the time of the study 60 percent of local governments had a Facebook presence, but barely one fifth were on Twitter. (This was in the sleepy pre-Trump era of Twitter.) In general, we found that the more open governments are with constituents, the more they engender trust.

Even though our study was conducted barely two years ago, it came against a very different societal backdrop. President Obama was behind the push for government at all levels to communicate electronically with the goal of increasing trust and accountability. These days cities like Kingston and Poughkeepsie maintain fairly active Twitter accounts and post frequently. This seems appropriate: In our fast-paced era, when even Facebook seems too onerous to peruse, governments that can blast quick info to constituents (especially missives that can be read on a phone) are reaching people quickly and simply.

But what happens to the trust that openness engenders when the public official steps out of his or her governance role, and uses official social media platforms to advance personal views, or agendas?

Once Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, sheriffs around the country have felt emboldened to use social media to express their own views, sometimes using government platforms as their bullhorn. The latest but hardly the most inflammatory missive came this past weekend when Ulster County Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum used both Facebook and Twitter to tell citizens to boycott the NFL because, he argued, players taking a knee during the national anthem were being unpatriotic.

This isn’t nearly as disturbing as sheriffs in Oklahoma trying to thwart criminal justice reform through use of official social media communications.  Continue reading

A Congressional Town Hall in a Purple District

The political climate is begging for protest. But what we really need are actual conversations.

On August 31st, Congressman John Faso, in his first term in New York’s 19th District, held his first public town hall with constituents at the Esopus Town Hall in northeastern Ulster County, nearly seven months after he first took office. During ordinary political times this would be a non-event, as riveting as cable T.V. coverage of your town board’s meeting. But these are not ordinary political times. NY’s 19th is a rare district; it is actually competitive. Faso won with 54 percent of the vote in 2016. Now, in the wake of Donald Trump’s abysmal performance as president, eight potential challengers have lined up, seeking to take on the freshman congressman in 2018.

Many Republicans in Congress across the country have been heavily criticized for not holding open town hall meetings to discuss the house majority policy agenda, Donald Trump’s offensive language, behavior and views, or the controversial initiatives of the Trump administration in health care, federal budget cuts, immigration, tax policy and other policy areas. In response, Republicans argued that these meetings were not venues for serious civil exchange, but opportunities for abusive confrontation by organized opposition on the left. Continue reading

Winning the Battle, Losing the War: How Sales Tax Renewal Thwarts Constitutional Home Rule

This post, written by Dr. Gerald Benjamin, was originally published on the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s blog.  It is reposted here with permission, click here for the full text.

On March 27, 2017, the Ulster County legislature unanimously passed Resolution 97 authorizing its chairman “… to request the New York State Legislature to commence the process of extending the Ulster County additional sales tax rate of one percent … for at least the twenty-four month period commencing December 1, 2017.” At stake: estimated annual revenue of $23.8 million for the county, $3.2 million for the city of Kingston, and $835,000 for the county’s towns. For the county and the city, these are big numbers. The potential loss of this revenue if the additional taxing authority were not extended would leave a gaping hole in annual operating budgets.

The county’s request was forwarded to eight state legislators with some part of Ulster County in their districts: Senators George A. Amedore, John J. Bonacic, William J. Larkin, Jr., and James L. Seward; and Assemblypersons Kevin A. Cahill, Brian D. Miller, Peter D. Lopez, and Frank K. Skartados. In response, Senator Amadore introduced a bill (S5568) on April 13, 2017, and Assembly Cahill introduced a companion bill (A7409) on April 25, 2017, as requested, to extend additional sales tax collection authority for another two years.

Shortly thereafter, the Ulster County Legislature in Kingston passed a second resolution (Resolution 222) specifically requesting enactment of the Senate and Assembly bills. The county legislature is closely divided politically, but again sponsorship was bipartisan, and the vote was unanimous. County Executive Michael Hein signed off immediately, and the results were sent to both state legislative houses the next day.

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On Local Government. Exploring Municipal Charters and Reform

ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT: Exploring Municipal Charters and Reform

A public educational forum presented by KingstonCitizens.org
Moderated by Co-Founder Rebecca Martin

This event will be filmed.

Thursday, July 13th, 2017
5:30pm – 7:30pm
Kingston Public Library
55 Franklin Street
Kingston, NY 12401

With very special guests:
DR. GERALD BENJAMIN
Associate Vice President for Regional Engagement
SUNY at New Paltz
JENNIFER SCHWARTZ BERKY
Ulster County Legislature and
Principal/Founder
Hone Street Strategic

A municipal charter is the “basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. It is comparable to the Constitution of the United States or a state’s constitution. The charter is, therefore, the most important legal document of any city”

Join KingstonCitizens.org as we explore the function of a Municipal or City Charter’: What are they? Why do communities adopt or revise them? What are the basic forms of government under Charters, and more.

A question and answer period will follow.

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New York IS a Referendum State — In Local Government

This post, written by Dr, Gerald Benjamin, was originally published in Rockefeller Institute of Government’s blog. It is reposted here with permission.

After receiving a consultant’s report that the town’s highway garage was unsafe and near collapse, the governing board of the northeastern Onondaga County town of Cicero voted earlier this year to replace it. The estimated cost was $9,894,353. The decision had been avoided in the past, the need was great, leadership was willing, and the time seemed as ripe as it was likely to get. Town finances had been stabilized; Cicero is not among localities identified by the state comptroller as under “fiscal stress.” Interest rates are still low, especially for municipalities.

The plan was to borrow the money for the garage over 30 years. The average price for a house bought in Cicero in 2015 was $175,696. Without figuring in recent effects of changes in values, the annual tax impact of the project after the first year on this average priced house would come to $42 annually (about an initial 4 percent increase in a homeowner’s yearly town taxes). Things seemed all set. Continue reading

Team-Taught Course Considers Barriers and Opportunities for Women in Politics

Guest post from Despina Williams Parker, Staff Assistant for the SUNY New Paltz Dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences

This article was originally posted in the Liberal Arts & Sciences Spring Newsletter.

At the age of 5, Natassia Velez set her sights on a leadership role even more demanding than kindergarten class line leader.  She had the will, the desire and the smarts.  But when she boldly announced her intentions to become the president of the United States, she heard not encouragement, but laughter.

As she got older and prominent female politicians like Hillary Clinton emerged, Velez noticed a change in others’ response to her political aspirations. “People started realizing that it was more plausible for a female to be president, so they stopped laughing,” she said.

Now a senior international relations major, Velez enrolled in this spring’s “Women and Politics” course to learn more about the “barriers and pathways” for women like herself who hope to enter the political arena.  Her experience so far has been both eye-opening and empowering.

Led by Kathleen Dowley, an associate professor of political science and director of the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, and KT Tobin, associate director of the Benjamin Center and sociology lecturer, the course’s first team-taught iteration offers an expansive look at the cultural, institutional and economic barriers to, as well as the opportunities for, women’s political participation in the U.S and around the globe.

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Cutting Arts Funding Will Hurt Our Communities and Local Commerce

Sketches for “Jam City”, a 2013 collaborative design project re-imagining Newburgh, at the Boys & Girls Club of Newburgh

The Hudson Valley is arguably the birthplace of arts in America. Last week, in a Poughkeepsie Journal op-ed, writer Sandi Sonnenfeld convincingly argued that the Trump administration’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA), along with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) would have massive negative consequences for the reemerging arts communities here, where it all began.

Sonnenfeld, who lives in Poughkeepsie, cited a 2014 Benjamin Center study that examined the economic impact of arts and culture in the Mid-Hudson Valley, defined as Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Sullivan, Rockland, Ulster and Westchester Counties. She wrote:

“The elimination of federal funding for the arts and humanities is especially problematic for those of us who live in the Hudson Valley. According to a study conducted by SUNY New Paltz’s Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach [now the Benjamin Center], Mid-Hudson arts and culture organizations attract 2.6 million day visitors and 1 million overnight visitors to the region for cultural events, injecting $498 million directly into our local economy every year. The local arts scene also directly and indirectly employs nearly 5,000 residents. In Dutchess, Ulster and Orange counties, Arts Mid-Hudson helps provide grants to 393 organizations and individual artists. Guess where the majority of Arts Mid-Hudson’s funding comes from? From the New York [State] Council for the Arts (NYSCA), which is funded by New York state and yes, the NEA.”

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Three Proposals That Assure Independent Oversight by Elected County Comptrollers

Proposed budgets in 2016 two upstate counties, Ulster and Onondaga, delivered bad news to comptrollers, county elected officials charged with fiscal oversight.  In Ulster, County Executive Michael Hein sought a 22% cut (from $890,000 to $695,000) in Comptroller Elliot Auerbach’s budget. Meanwhile, in Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney took $479,000 (27%) out of Comptroller’s Bob Antonacci’s budget. Were these decisions political payback that reveal a need for structural changes in county government, or simply tough-minded management?

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