As the town’s Republicans work to earn a seat at the table by discussing what should be done differently in the coming year, Democrats are touting the current administration’s accomplishments.
With the supervisor and two Town Board members up for re-election, the outcome of November could mean a shift in power for the town. Supervisor John Clarkson is running for his third term, as is Councilwoman Joann Dawson. The town’s Democratic Party has also endorsed newcomer David VanLuven after Councilman Jeffrey Kuhn opted to not seek re-election.
A third board seat could be vacated should Councilman Bill Reinhardt win his bid for the Albany County Legislature. Those elected would then have the chance to appoint a new Town Board member to fill the position.
Some endorsed by the Democratic Party also face a primary come September. Former Director of Senior Services Joyce Becker was endorced by the Independence Party, but is running for Town Board as a Democrat. The same goes for Dan Morin, who is running for superintendent of highways.
“I think we’re running on a very good record,” said Clarkson. “An excellent job has been done on fiscal stewardship. We solved a budget gap and put the town in a stable financial condition. We’ve also consistently cut spending in the four years I’ve been here and saw better management of town government.”
The supervisor said he is proud of the town’s transparency record and works hard to continue those efforts. This is in large part to the new web-casting system, which was started just as Clarkson’s first term began. A new website was also added about two years ago.
Dawson said a lot more residents are watching the meetings now that they can view them from home, which has led to a more informed community.
Since Clarkson took office, the town has also formed 10 citizen advisory committees in order to better harness the knowledge and expertise of residents. It also allowed for more public input on topics like deer and ticks, ethics, development and budgetary issues. Town Board members also began holding community meetings in each neighborhood to better address specific issues.
The town won a $776,000 state efficiency grant in 2013 for consolidation efforts between the town’s Parks and Recreation and Highway departments. Most of the money has been used to install new sidewalks throughout more rural areas of Bethlehem.
Some of the funds were also used to provide needed technology upgrades.
A new times and attendance system was installed, which allows some employees to clock in and out using a fingerprint. Others use a website, with the information automatically sent to payroll. Some highway and police vehicles also have GPS installed to better track vehicles and gas usage, while the building department received iPads for field use.
Dawson said the town is fortunate to be in a better financial situation than many other municipalities across the state. However, she said next year will be a challenge, as the state’s tax cap limit is set to be lowered.
“That’s going to present some challenges to hold the line on spending and continue to find efficiencies in the way town services are provided,” said Dawson. “I think we are very committed to preserving a high level of services that our residents expect and deserve, and that doesn’t come without some work.”
She said, as others have eluded, the level of services are why people move to Bethlehem. No one would ever want to see those compromised.
Republican candidates have made the level of town services one of their main talking points for the coming election, especially issues with leaf collection and snow removal last season.
Superintendent Brent Meredith, who is also up for re-election, said last year’s leaf pick-up didn’t go as planned. Early snowfall caused the leaves to remain on the ground for several weeks. The future goal is to do three rounds of leaf pick-ups before Thanksgiving. The Highway Department also hires extra seasonal staff each year for that purpose.
“It’s important for residents to understand if we have another weather event like last year, it can slow down collection,” said Meredith. “We want to get (the leaves) picked up before an event like that, but there’s nothing I can do about the weather.”
As for snow, Meredith said he received few complaints about snow removal. The biggest issue is usually snow blocking driveways after the road are plowed, but drivers try to be courteous to homeowners. The department is now using anti-icing technology to spray down before storms to prevent adhesion. Meredith said according to data provided by the town’s police, accidents have decreased on the roads that have been sprayed. They are going to focus next year on roads with high accident rates.
“As I’m knocking on doors and talking to residents, it’s not an issue on the scale I think it’s being presented as,” reiterated VanLuven on the leaf and snow removal. “It’s also something that is pretty straight forward to rectify and not something that reflects a deeper problem.”
According to Dawson, she felt development is the key issue for most residents and has been over the past several years.
“Coming from Glenmont, it’s a big concern to me how things have occurred along 9W,” Dawson said. “We’re now living with those decisions, and we have to make sure things don’t go from bad to worse.”
Clarkson said the Town Board has worked to hear-out residents and has not been afraid to slow down decisions if need be. One of the biggest instances has been with Wemple Corners, where the board has asked developers for more information twice. The project is still on hold.
“No one is saying build it and we’ll figure it our later,” said Clarkson. “We’re saying ‘Whoa, let’s figure this out the first time.’”
Clarkson said although both sides agree development is the issue, when the town adopted an open space plan many Republicans came out against it. He added there is typically a predisposition from the opposing side on those types of regulations.
VanLuven worked on the town’s open space committee. He said many residents in town want to achieve the same goals, no no matter the political party. If that could be put aside, then they could move forward.
With tensions high over the issue of police overtime, Dawson said public safety is of the utmost importance to those on the board.
“We are committed to preserving our police department. It’s an important part of our community,” said Dawson. “We believe we are working very well with the department to ensure public safety, and I think we have a great relationship with department leadership.”
Clarkson said although it is unfortunate a contract negotiations have not been completed, it is not unusual for negotiations to go past the New Year deadline. Both Dawson and Clarkson thought negotiations were going well.
“Overtime is not a contract issue, it’s a budget issue,” said Dawson. “In my years on the board, every budget we sit and negotiate the need to get a handle on overtime. We’ve been consistently 24 to 50 percent over budget in my seven years on the board. You can’t continue to be fiscally responsible with those numbers.”
Dawson said although overtime is essential for emergencies, the board has looking to reduce overtime for the times the can predict.
VanLuven agreed, adding the police can’t be looked at in isolation but in the context of the entire town budget and the entire sweep of services. He said if more money is given to the police, then it is typically taken away from other departments that residents may rely on, like senior services.
“We can’t be a one issue party,” he said. “It’s too complex. “It may be easy to simply things in sound bites, but that doesn’t translate well into good government.”