BETHLEHEM — Expressing pride in past accomplishments and hope for future progress, Town Supervisor John Clarkson gave his unscripted State of the Town address at Town Hall Tuesday morning, Jan. 10, marking his sixth annual address on the overall health and well-being of the Albany suburb.
Clarkson welcomed elected officials — including state Sen. Neil Breslin, Assemblymember Pat Fahy, incoming Board Member Giles Wagoner and newly appointed Albany County Legislator Darrell Duncan (D-38) — various town employees, and thanked now-former Board Member Doris Davis for her service. Working from what he described as “rough notes,” he then began his speech by wishing a happy new year to those in attendance and commenting on the success of the town’s inaugural First Night event.
“It was a success and we are going to do it again,” he said, thanking his administrative assistant, Robin Nagengast, and a number of organizations that provided time, talent or resources. With approximately 2,000 participants, the event, which was Clarkson’s idea, raised about $3,000 for charity. The supervisor expressed a desire to improve upon future events, but called it “right-sized” and said the town is unlikely to grow them or extend the hours.
“Most important,” said Clarkson of Bethlehem’s first First Night, “is that I saw a lot of smiling faces.”
Clarkson commented, generally, on the activist nature of Bethlehem residents and the state of political conversation at the national level, advising integrity and civility when engaging in that conversation and others like it. “In Bethlehem, we’ve avoided the sort of civic and public dysfunction you can see elsewhere,” he said. For that, he credited those who work in service to the town, before going on to name a few of the newcomers who are expected to be approved at tomorrow night’s organizational Town Board meeting.
Financially, said Clarkson, the town has “achieved and been able to maintain structural balance.” He pointed out that Bethlehem enjoys the most comfortable financial position in the Capital District and said that, while town finances may not be interesting, neither are they easy to manage. “It’s about being able to do things,” he said, “things like building sidewalks.”
In terms of government transparency, Clarkson said, “I think this town truly excels. Our website, our open meetings; the fact that we put every single material out in advance of our meetings is tremendously important. A lot of the governments in our region are moving that way; it’s the way to go, certainly, but no one does it as well as Bethlehem.”
He discussed the various efforts made by the town in recent years to develop and implement a fiscally sound, transparent government — including securing two $200,000 microenterprise grants, the first of which helped to support, or open in some cases, nine Bethlehem businesses. (The town is currently accepting applications from microenterprises, businesses with fewer than five employees, old or new, who are in need of additional capital or new equipment.)
“Agenda-setting,” Clarkson said, however, “is really only a part of governance. In fact, it’s not even the majority. Things happen that you didn’t plan on, things happen that you have to take care of.” Confessing a lack of experience in the area, Clarkson acknowledged, for example, that town residents are concerned about traffic safety, especially as concerns cyclists and pedestrians. In response to that concern, he said, “now we have a group that meets that includes our police department, our planning department, our highway superintendent, a lot of other people.”
Now, whenever an issue regarding traffic safety is brought before the town, he said, “We get together and we try to look at it rationally. It’s not always a ‘yes.’ People can ask for a stop sign and we may say, ‘well, the engineering shows that it does not belong here.’” He pointed out that the town has been responsive to speed limit concerns in some areas, saying that they were continuing to look at others for the same purpose.
Reducing excessive overtime is another area in which he touted success, noting that overtime costs, especially in law enforcement, were down, “dramatically,” for the third consecutive year, due to successful contract negotiations and changes in management practices. “Sometimes some feathers are ruffled, “ he said, “but we work through it.”
At this point in his address, Clarkson began to look forward. “If we’re not moving forward, we’re not doing the job,” he said. “We have a big year ahead.”
He chose to highlight three major focuses going into the year: the town waterfront revitalization program; the Delaware Ave. enhancement project; and the preservation of open spaces.
“We are a Hudson River community,” he said. “It’s a regional asset and we want to maximize our benefit from it.” Recreation, preservation and commercial benefits are all desirable in certain parts of the town, he said. Plans such as the Waterfront Revitalization Plan enable the town to receive funding for certain project and, said Clarkson, ensure that state and federal government will consider the wishes of the town when moving forward with projects of their own. “I don’t know what the final waterfront plan will include yet,” he said. “We have a great group that’s working on it and they’re doing a lot of interaction with the citizens.” The planning process is expected to wrap up by this summer.
“The Delaware Ave. enhancement is going to take place this year,” said the supervisor. “Now, we’ve all been looking at the pictures, planning and we’ve been giving input and it’s great. But I know what’s going to happen. It’s a big construction project and it’s going to shut down Delaware Ave. for a while, not totally, but it is going to go down to one lane at times and there may be some dislocation. We’re going to work with the state, who is overseeing this project, and with the merchants and do the best job we can, but there will be some interruption.
“When it’s finished, however,” he said, “we will have, from Four Corners down to Elsmere something that looks very much like Four Corners itself does.” The enhancement, said Clarkson, will include the rebuilding of the street and the infrastructure that lies beneath. “We will have a brand new street, brand new sidewalks — in some cases, where there weren’t really sidewalks. We’ll have parking bump-outs, we’ll have pedestrian crossings, new lights, new street trees.”
The town will do its best to keep affected residents informed regarding the project timeline, he said before moving on to the topic of open space preservation, “but you can’t dig up a street or a yard without digging up the street or the yard.
“Planning only works when the public is involved,” Clarkson said moments later. “And open space planning and the discussion over what we should do is very much an interaction between the public and the town. We have a long history on this of not actually reaching a full consensus.
“We have done a lot through our planning and zoning, we have talked about it a lot, our not-for-profit groups such as Mohawk-Hudson Land Conservancy and Scenic Hudson are doing a lot, but one thing we have never done is use town resources to buy development rights or land solely for the purposes of preservation.” He said that the town has come close to taking that step several times in the past and suggested the town would be taking bolder steps in that direction.
“We’re one of three communities statewide, for example, that has a conservation easement program,” he said, noting that Breslin and Fahy worked to make that possible. “That allows us to lower property taxes for owners who are willing to give up development for at least 15 years,” he explained. “It hasn’t been a great success yet because of the ‘opt-in’ from the other taxing jurisdictions.” Bethlehem Central School District opted in this year and Clarkson said, in the coming year, former Town Board member and current County Legislator William Reinhardt will be sponsoring the legislation that would allow the county to opt in as well.
“It won’t cost county taxpayers anything,” said Clarkson. “All it will do is just very, very slightly redistribute the amount that Bethlehem residents pay. We are willing, I think, to give up a very, very minor amount in our taxes to help landowners preserve their land and this does it without us paying out of pocket or raising the budget.
“But we also want to look at spending town money,” he continued. “We’ve chipped up right to the edge of it and we want to look at going further.” The town hopes to utilize the Community Conservation Act, Clarkson said, to adopt an open space plan that would include a local property transfer tax levy — subject to approval by voters. “So it would give us, not only a mechanism, but also a fund to deal with this, if we choose to do so.
“We will pursue the legislation as we pursue the conversation with our residents,” he said, before briefly mentioning the usefulness and fluidity of the town’s comprehensive plan and recent changes to town zoning law.
“We’re a fortunate community,” he said in conclusion. “I think we all know that. And from those who are fortunate, much is and ought to be expected. . . We should never rest on our laurels or stop striving. I can promise you that I will not and I don’t believe that this town ever will.”