After one term highlighted by clashes with the Town Board, a lively debate over a golf course and progress on the town’s largest economic development project in years, Bethlehem Supervisor Sam Messina can still remember the reasons why he ran for the town’s top spot in the first place.
Messina, who defeated incumbent Jack Cunningham in 2009, said he wanted to focus on fiscal accountability, the quality of life in Bethlehem and the way town officials carried themselves, with the mission of doing what’s best for the town.
“I don’t really think I had a plan on how it would go,” Messina said while sitting in his Town Hall office. “I did have a plan on my vision of what I would try to do in government here in Bethlehem and where I wanted to try to guide the town.”
A tough retirement call
Messina said the toughest decision he made as supervisor was to bow out of a reelection bid in 2011. A member of the Independence Party, Messina said he wanted to run again but probably would’ve needed the support of one of the two major parties.
“I pushed back a machine in the Democratic Party pretty hard when I ran for supervisor (in 2009), and those things aren’t soon forgotten,” said Messina. “I knew what I was doing, and I needed to push back because we didn’t need politics as usual in Bethlehem. There’s one major party I wasn’t going to get.”
Messina said he was surprised to not receive the support of the Republican Party, which chose instead to support Councilman Kyle Kotary in his bid for supervisor. He did, however, believe he could win with the endorsements he received from the Working Families and Conservative parties.
“That is a very long, grueling, very expensive proposition,” said Messina of the possibility of another run. “Mostly it’s grueling on the candidate’s family, on the volunteers that you ask to be with you. I had not had an easy two years on the Town Board, so it was a tough decision, but I talked with my confidant on these matters, and that’s (Deputy Supervisor) John Smolinsky, and said I would not run.”
Normanside Country Club
Messina said the Town Board did exactly what a responsible body should do when considering a bid for the Normanside Country Club in early 2011. He said the board and town officials met and talked with other towns and golf course owners about the positives and negatives of owning a course.
“We got our brains wrapped around this one, and I feel that we did the right thing,” said Messina. “I think there were people that were very unhappy based on principle, and they told me so, that we went out to try and acquire the golf course.”
Messina stressed that he would not have supported the town’s $1.5 million bid for Normanside if he did not had evidence the town would’ve broken even or benefited financially from ownership. He said there was a need to keep the golf course open for recreation, including for use by those who jog and cross-country ski through Normanside.
Messina said he knows that for some in the Republican Party, his support of the Normanside bid was “pretty much the death knell” regarding support for his term in office and reelection.
Two years of budget issues
In crafting budgets for 2011 and 2012, Messina and the Town Board have kept tax increases under 2 percent. For 2012, the tax increase was 1.27 percent, well within the property tax cap adopted by state lawmakers over the summer.
Messina credited the successful budgets (though leaders butted heads late into the process in 2011) on principles he followed in crafting the spending plans, such as minimizing the use of fund balances and addressing the town’s structural deficit. Despite excluding a 1 percent cost of living increase for employees this year, Messina said the town was able to avoid a growing trend of laying off staff in order to meet its budget goals.
“If we don’t have to cut jobs and fire people, we don’t,” said Messina. “Let’s not get caught up in the mantra that’s out there that’s almost publicly popular to do. We have a responsibility to these people. They help us get where we need to go.”
Messina was quick to applaud the town’s ability to balance its financial situation.
“I don’t know any other government that balanced it quite all of those ways,” Messina said.
Progress on the horizon
Messina referred to the development at the Vista Technology Campus as the “preeminent project” he worked on during his time in office. He said his responsibility was to not give in to the idea that the economy was to blame for a lack of economic development.
“We looked at three different financing mechanisms, we had heated debates in here, so many things to coordinate, we had some delays along the way, but the bottom line is that the IDA (Industrial Development Agency), the town, the other taxing jurisdictions, and the developer knew we were serious, our town staff was serious,” said Messina.
A ceremonial groundbreaking was held for Vista on Dec. 15, but work on Vista Boulevard, the main road through the tech park, began in October.
Life out of the spotlight
Messina said he wants to get back involved in a number of efforts in the new year. He’s been in touch with Albany Medical Center, where he wants to once again become an overnight chaplain at the hospital. He’s also looking to get re-involved in DWI impact boards and presentations for boards working on issues pertaining to organ donation.
As for town government, Messina plans on following the town’s progress and lending his thoughts where appropriate.
“I intend to continue to be involved in my town government. I believe I’ll attend Town Board meetings every once in a while,” Messina said.