Town Supervisor David VanLuven’s main message was his hope for Bethlehem residents to not be divided, but instead work together more. Diego Cagara / Spotlight News
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BETHLEHEM — Town Supervisor David VanLuven said during his annual State of the Town Address at Town Hall that he wants the Bethlehem community to continue feeling united, even with challenges abound down the road both locally and nationally.
“Bethlehem is a place of neighbors and for me, it’s a place of hope. But the national news is filled with strife and discord,” he began. “I see and hear the national news and I’m filled with despair. But then I look at our town — our Bethlehem — and my perspective changes. We are neighbors and we are a community … and I hope it is or, at least, it can be for you, too.”
As VanLuven gave his speech on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at 8:30 a.m. to a crowd of colleagues, friends, residents, and other local political figures, he first thanked the town’s service people who were perceived as Bethlehem’s often-unsung heroes. Examples he gave are those who plowed the town’s roads during blizzards, the local police for patrolling the neighborhoods, and Town Hall staff who helped answer concerned residents’ queries.
“The wonderful services we receive in Bethlehem are not delivered by the town, they’re delivered by people,” VanLuven said. “Your town government is people … it is people working together on your behalf.”
He also said that throughout the past year, he has heard numerous residents complain, “I pay high taxes but I’m not getting value for my dollar,” to which he pointed out that only 12 percent of Bethlehem residents’ property taxes go to the town government, which includes town services. Meanwhile, 68 percent went to the school district, 4 percent went to the fire department, 4 percent went to the library, and 12 percent went to the county.
“For every property tax dollar you pay in 2019, the Town of Bethlehem will only see 11 cents while 89 cents go elsewhere,” he said. “And I vigorously assert that we get a lot for those 11 cents.”
In 2018, Bethlehem’s Department of Public Works (DPW) delivered 1.6 billion gallons of clean drinking water to over 11,000 households and businesses, through 229 miles of pipes which included 1,670 fire hydrants. DPW also processed 1.2 billion gallons of sewage.
The town’s Highway Department rebuilt almost one mile of sidewalks, “These are hand-laid, it’s back-breaking work,” VanLuven said. “They also plowed through several snowstorms and snow-plowing is a gigantic task.” To give residents perspective, Bethlehem has 186 miles of town roads and workers had to plow in both directions — indicating that they plowed through 372 miles of roads. They also had 58 miles of sidewalks to plow and had to collect “so, so, so many leaves.”
VanLuven said that the Bethlehem Police Department patrolled over 350,000 miles and answered 22,000 calls in 2018. The Delmar-Bethlehem EMS, a non-profit organization that works with the town, answered over 3,800 calls, transported 2,700 people to the hospital, and “even delivered a baby at a home,” he said. “And they did all this with 79 volunteers who gave more than 15,000 hours of free service to our community.”
The Senior Services Department’s volunteers drove 84,000 miles in 2018, transporting the elderly to help them buy groceries, see their doctors, and more. They also ran the town’s food pantry, offering over 75,000 pounds of food to local families in need. The town’s Justice Court oversaw 8,700 traffic and criminal cases whereas the Town Clerk’s office issued 87 marriage licences and notarized over 1,200 documents.
“These are the things you readily see, but like the preparation of a big family feast, most of our work takes place behind the scenes,” VanLuven said. “So that’s just a subset of what we get for our property tax payments to the town and I assert that it’s probably the best 12 cents on the dollar that money can buy.”
In order to maintain Bethlehem’s “small-town feel” and community character, VanLuven said one major challenge is guiding future developments and growth. He pointed out that the town government cannot outright reject growth though and that landowners do have the right to sell their lands to a developer who, in turn, was the right to develop those properties.
He singled out three growth-related programs in 2019 that the town would continue looking into.
First, the town government would still look through development proposals which need to adhere to Bethlehem’s zoning laws and the surrounding neighborhoods’ characters. Second, Bethlehem is still in the process of crafting its new comprehensive plan which would outline the town’s goals, action items and overall vision through perhaps 2035 and beyond — the last comprehensive plan was done in 2005 with a vision set through 2020. Third, Bethlehem will continue working with interested local property owners to add land to the town’s natural parks.
“The character of Bethlehem includes forests and fields and farms, and if we want this to be the case in the future, we have to step up, take responsibility and pay for it,” VanLuven said. “Relying on the kindness of strangers has not worked well for the last 30 years and I believe we can do better.”
VanLuven also brought up more specific tasks Bethlehem would face this year and beyond.
Among them included continued planning into the $4.9 million Glenmont roundabout project which will improve the existing four-way intersection of Feura Bush and Glenmont roads with Rte. 9W. With construction planned to begin in 2020 and end in 2021, it would consist of a roundabout, new crosswalks, rectangular-rapid flashing beacons, and 2,800 feet of sidewalk that would better connect people from Glenmont Elementary School and Vagele Lane.
Other challenges are improving the water treatment process at the Clapper Water Treatment Plant, improving town sidewalks, exploring ways to confront in-town traffic congestion, encouraging local businesses to grow, and continuing with delivering town services for all residents.
Throughout his speech, VanLuven sometimes gestured to a screened slideshow beside him that showed photographs of smiling residents and town employees working together, like those of the Senior Services and Highway Departments, as well as local landmarks like the Four Corners. It was accompanied by the hashtag #ThisIsBethlehemNY.
“#ThisIsBethlehemNY is more than just a hashtag, it is a sign of the pride that we have in our town workers, our businesses and our neighbors,” he concluded. “America may be divided as a nation but we are not divided in Bethlehem. … Thank you and let’s work together to get things done.”