This week in the Catskill Mountain News (and I do love writing for it about local issues. It's one of the most fulfilling things I do as a writer) I did profiles of the four candidates for town supervisor here in Middletown. And, I've been called by one of them who complained about being misquoted. I have the whole MP3 of our interview. In fact of all the interviews, which for each candidate alone totals up to more than 5000 words. That's more than 20,000 words of transcription in total – or to put it in other terms: more than 30 pages.
Local, small-town life comes with many charms. One being that what you write actually matters to the readers and you hear from those readers. They will call you. And forgive you. Or tell you their opinion. You can too. There's a place for comments below.
This year there will be what amounts to an historic election in the Town of Middletown, not simply because of the recent flood, but also because of a wholesale shift in town government, with both the long-serving incumbent town clerk and supervisor retiring. For the first time in years there are four candidates, and none is running with a party affiliation.
The choice of a new town supervisor also has implications at the county government level. The supervisor represents Middletown in the county government. He or she becomes a member of the county board of supervisors, which functions much like the board of directors of a large corporation. The supervisors manage the county’s budget; which will approach $100 million in 2012.
That budget is, in large part, fed by local property taxes, and the supervisors help decide how that money is apportioned. There are also several committees and other boards, like the Catskill Watershed Corporation and the Coalition of Watershed Towns, on which Middletown’s supervisor may well sit, helping to steer a future that in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene is anything but secure.
The News interviewed all the candidates extensively, asking follow-up questions and clarifications on issues from taxes, tourism and revenue to their vision for Middletown now.
Those interviews, in name alphabetical order, follow.
Wayd Jaquish could be called the ghost candidate. He’s been the least visible in the race. Many people didn’t even know he was running until the debate last week, and when asked what he’s doing to prepare for the job, he’s honest – to a fault. “I haven’t been doing my homework to put it bluntly,” he says. “Right at the moment I’ve been too busy.”
He’s sitting behind the register at Jaquish Appliances on a slow Saturday with no calls or visitors. Hints of tattoos peek out from his T-Shirt, with his arms on the counter. There’s ink for all his children. The oldest son represented with calligraphy for love, devotion, wealth and Aquarius, and the youngest two with a dragon and princess.
With his Amish-style beard and wire glasses he has an almost 19th-century look, and it’s impossible to learn much of his campaign – or himself – online. He hasn’t signed up for Facebook. All you find through Google is a Spalding Gray video for HBO. The actor did a film on his upstate home where Wayd’s father installed the appliances. In the movie young Wayd repeats everything his dad says, because he’d heard it so many times. “That was my two minutes of fame,” he laughs.
As he talks about the campaign, Wayd repeats frequently the phrase, “our part of the world,” and “this part of the world” – instead of calling it Middletown or Delaware County or even the Catskills. The way he says it, the phrase has an almost studied cadence that gives him a preacherly air that seems in keeping with the Amish beard and wire glasses.
He grew up here, went to MCS, graduating in 1995, and went on to do a cram course in refrigeration, air conditioning and appliances, then came back to take his place in the family business. He decided to run originally because of his real estate tax assessment.
“I wanted to be in the supervisor position to get information,” he explains. “They just came through and assessed me at $158,000. Nobody looked at the place. Where did they come up with that? I want an understanding of how they did that and why.”
Now he’s in the race because he’s unhappy with issues in the Watershed. He studies his hands and coughs, clearing his throat. “I’m not happy with the influences going on in our part of the world. You have more hoops and battles and rigmarole. The more I get into the politics and listen to people around the countryside, it’s clear they just don’t want us here.”
The “they” in question are, of course, the city and its Department of Environmental Protection, but Wayd doesn’t have a solution. “I haven’t been in the game long enough to see the players,” he says.
“I haven’t been going to the meetings. I really don’t have the answer at this moment because I really don’t think there is an answer. I don’t think there is a fix.”
He wants to serve to give back to his community. “This town has given me everything I’ve ever had, and everything I’ve ever worked for has been in this town. This town is my whole entire life.” When asked what makes him qualified, he turns the question around and asks, “What needs to be the qualifications to put a person in this position? It’s a position on the board and the everyday goings on and overseeing the budget. Seventy to eighty percent of it goes to the garage,” he explains and says that alone makes him qualified. “Knowing what work goes on there and what maintenance is involved in running trucks and equipment up and down the road, that’s what I do,” he says proudly.
“I service my own equipment and work on smaller equipment and know what maintenance is involved. That’s pretty much what a supervisor does.”
Asked about his vision for Middletown, he isn’t long on specifics, not yet at least. “It’s hard to determine, what can go on in this part of the world without knowing who you have to go through and who’d put money in certain projects.” One project he’d like to do is at the septic plant, where he sees a possibility of algae production for biofuel.
“It’s –” he glances at a clipboard, flipping through the pages until he finds the number – “one acre of algae can produce 100,000 gallons of fuel. Whereas corn is around 20 gallons. The septic can take all the gray water and run it through where the greenhouses were. They were completely set up to produce algae and create profits for the sewer plant,” his voice rises as he talks. “I’m looking at any alternative that could benefit the system.” That includes windmills, which he thinks should be back on the agenda.
“Basically, he says, “the reason I’m taking on this job is to bring a little more common sense into the picture and try to talk to people and say ‘why not? Why can’t we do these things?’”
There’s little Marge Miller hasn’t done to prepare for the job of supervisor. She’s met with supervisors ranging from Len Utter and Tom Hynes to those further afield like Tina Mole, Keitha Capouya and Jim Eisel who’s chairman of the county board of supervisors. The 15-minute meeting he’d promised her extended to more than an hour. She’s studied budgets, attended town and village board meetings, read the entire Comprehensive Plan (the complex one, at that, before it was simplified). She’s met with the town clerk, secretary and building code officer, as well as both current and former highway superintendents to understand how their budget, which is some 70-80 percent of the town’s total expenditure, works.
John Biruk, the current superintendent, says, “She’s the only candidate to willingly come see me looking for answers about how it works.” She’s studied the census data, registered voters and gone house to house to meet constituents. She’s even read the New York State Comptroller’s Handbook for Local Government. Never the most exciting read, it details the responsibilities and limits of the job, including “being,” as the book puts it, “the chief receiver of concerns and complaints.”
The level of detail in her preparation is more akin to what candidates do for state or national office, not a local part-time position. Sitting outside her house on a sunny afternoon in a Yankees cap and clogs, Miller breathlessly recounts all the research. Her dedication gives her a wonkish edge, a bit like Hillary Clinton, who she resembles with her big round eyes.
“There was an urgency,” she explains, “even before the flood. This community has needed long-range planning and it can’t come from outside.” Not that any of the candidates are outsiders, but having lived in the city, she insists she’s best able to unite everyone from long-standing residents to second homeowners.
She moved back in 2001 after working as an actress in Manhattan and serving as head of her co-op board. She returned to help care for her aging parents, and soon also got involved with MCS, subbing and coaching tennis and the drama club. She now serves as the Bovina librarian as well.
“Doing something to help my community is what matters to me, not playing the cheerleading coach on some afterschool special,” she shakes her head. “Is that going to change anyone’s lives?”
She owns property in the city, which provides her income. “I’m lucky,” she says, “I have the freedom to do what I think is important here.” This means that though the job is officially part-time with a part-time salary, she can devote as much time to it as it requires.
The supervisor’s duties include serving on the county board and sitting on its various committees. The more time the supervisor has, the more committees he or she can serve on, and the more influence he or she can have. Supervisors often serve on boards like the Catskill Watershed Corporation or the Coalition of Watershed Towns, which are important in lobbying for their towns.
The job’s duties leak far beyond attending to town issues, and Miller wants to sit on the county board’s Watershed Committee as well as the Finance Committee. “That is where the county budget is divvied up,” she says. “You have to earn that spot. It’s given to those with the time and experience. So,” she asks, how much can you give if you’re just a part-time worker?” She also sees the job as working with and lobbying for local groups from non-profits to the school and going to village board meetings to stay on top of town issues.
One of her core concerns is affordable housing. “After coming back,” she says, “you could see the scale of the transfer of land into the hands of people who don’t live here fulltime, who don’t,” as she puts it, “‘do the working and living and dying and the raising of kids’ here.” She’s quoting another Clinton, not Hillary but Bill. “We need to make sure there is affordable housing. We need a permanent local population who work here and staff the fire departments – all the jobs that are so important to a community. If we don’t have places for them to live or opportunity for them here, how can we keep them?”
After the flood she says it’s imperative to have low-income housing out of the floodplain, but she also stresses that jobs are key from the Crossroads Resort to local farms. “They employ people and are good for the environment.” They also, she explains, serve as ambassadors for the region through farmers’ markets.
Such advocacy is central to her campaign. “We have plenty of New York City money advocating for the city’s interests but most New Yorkers don’t have a clue where their water comes from.” She wants to put our case not simply to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, but to the larger downstate population so they see themselves as stakeholders in the Watershed and its success, from avoiding flooding to supporting farming and tourism.
Another major concern of hers is the two percent property tax cap, which she
calls daunting. “In talking to Tina Mole,” she explains, “Bovina’s allowable budget increase with the two percent cap amounted to $8,000 but their health care costs went up $14,000, so what do they cut? The highway crew? What do we cut in that case?” She knows the question is unpopular, particularly in an election year, but just like everything else with her campaign, she’s not shying away from bringing it up.
Joe Moskowitz holds court in Casey Joe’s, his coffee shop at the corner of routes 28 and 38 in Arkville. Over the years it has served as roller rink, dance hall, farm supply, and is now centerpiece of his Arkville revival. He talks proudly of how the barn-red buildings have transformed the area.
“The concentration of Jack’s,” he says, plus his new tenant, “the Cha Cha Hut, the auction, Casey Joe’s and Donatello’s Pizza complete my long-range plan going back to when I was a kid of turning the middle of Arkville into a dining and entertainment destination.”
With the Cha Cha Hut moving into Casey Joe’s, he’ll have time for the job of supervisor if he wins and won’t be working, “90 hours a week,” as he puts it. Though today it’s quiet. FedEx drops off a package and an older couple buying cookies asks when the Bun N’ Cone might reopen.
Moskowitz first ran for supervisor in 2005, just after moving back to the area. He lost by less than a hundred votes, impressive, given his recent return. Now he’s at a table in the café. The look is eclectic, with a pop-art Marilyn and pickup bed turned sofa. Traffic flickers by outside, and he talks with the confidence of one who’s been on both sides of the camera. Moskowitz started in broadcast journalism when still a student at Notre Dame and moved quickly to newscaster in Indianapolis, and from there to Houston, New Orleans, Sacramento, Albany –and finally to News 12 on Long Island, whose logo graces his baseball cap. In allegiance to his career at NBC the network’s peacock hangs on the wall.
Though he moved back home six years ago, Moskowitz spent nearly every weekend here from 1983 on. In the 2005 campaign his bold black “Joe” signs graced the town, turning his first name into a campaign slogan. Now few of them are out, and he’s been running most of his campaign on Facebook. Ads in the paper have touted his sometimes adversarial approach with a tag line of “Just think.” Recently he even turned being a bad guest into a qualification, advertising: “Nothing is ever good enough for Joe. That might make Joe an undesirable dinner guest, but it’s a common trait among leaders….”
He wants to make more of tourism and second homeowners. “We’re not taking enough advantage of them,” he says and brings up last Christmas as an example. “The Saturday before,” he says, “Margaretville was empty. I could have laid down in the middle of the street and been run over. At the same time on the same day, I could have gone to Phoenicia. Go there any day of the week, any night of the week and you have people, young people attracted by the businesses there, the restaurants and bars.”
Now he calls the flood an “opportunity.” It’s a word he repeats often. “Going back to where we were isn’t good enough.” He’d like Margaretville to be more like Phoenicia with stream-side dining and using the river for recreation. “What do we have here?” he asks rhetorically, “A couple of streams running right through town and a 26-mile fresh water lake. That’s what the reservoir becomes once the city opens it up.” The city has yet to make a firm promise to extend their pilot program in the Cannonsville, but Moskowitz insists they will.
He also favors putting together a committee to meet with the city to discuss watershed issues. “They have something we want –” he pauses dramatically– “money. And we have something they want … water.” For leverage the committee can use regulatory taking (an illegal use of eminent domain where government regulation effectively serves as defacto seizure) and a 1947 agreement that says the city must provide water to all who want it in the Watershed.
But whether Joe makes it that far is a big if. He knows it too. He resigned abruptly from the school board last spring. While there are conflicting explanations about what exactly happened, he wrote in a letter to the News that he could do more off the board. He felt as if his resigning was the best way to publicize problems at the school, including low graduation rates.
Moskowitz has also said frequently he’s wanted to serve as supervisor but couldn’t run in the last two elections because of work at Casey Joe’s and serving on the school board, a position he only took at the urging of others. He admits though he’ll have an uphill battle convincing people otherwise. “I know if I lose this race,” Moskowitz says, “it will very likely be because of this. I felt I needed to make a statement. But will I walk away from the town board?” he shakes his head and says emphatically, “No. I started this six years ago, and now the stakes are too high.”
Jake Rosa wasn’t planning on running for town supervisor, not this year at least. Then came the flood, and people lobbied him to change his mind. Currently deputy supervisor, Rosa has been on the town board for the last two years, but he still wasn’t convinced. Not that he didn’t think the job imperative, he just knew how much time it requires, and he has a young family and his own forestry business. As he walks a parcel of land he might log, he says it came down to his girlfriend. “When she said okay, I threw my hat in.”
The owner and sole employee of Dry Brook Custom Sawmilling and Logging, he’s won several awards including logger of the year for the Northeastern Loggers’ Association, where he beat loggers from states from Minnesota to Maine for the honor. Also on the Watershed Agriculture Council’s Forestry Commission and the board of the Catskills Forest Association, Jake has been lauded for his sustainable practices. Despite the accolades, he has no staff. The workers’ compensation and liability are too high. He taps the trunk of a giant cherry and says he’d consider hiring someone if elected to help with the workload.
Rosa is not one to put on airs. He’s wearing a red-gone-pink shirt with the sleeves cut off and a pencil tucked behind his ear. A lifelong hunter, he jokes that he became a logger because no one would pay him to hunt. His dad was supervisor during the ’96 flood, and Jake grew up and still lives on Dry Brook Road.
“I’d been looking forward to working with new people and new ideas on the board,” he says, explaining why he decided to run, “but this isn’t a time for learning on the job.” As he discusses the issues, he doesn’t pull any punches, whether he’s fretting over jobs and housing or the two percent property tax cap.
He explains that the town will probably spend $2 million on flood recovery and worries about FEMA’s coming through. “That’s two million we don’t have in our budget. Do we bond it? Then you have to raise taxes to make the payments, but the state passed a tax cap. How do we handle that?” He shakes his head at the Faustian bargain he’s laid out. “Do we lay off 10 of our highway employees so now we can’t plow in the winter?”
He’s just as direct when it comes to tourism. While many see it as the only future for our area, he thinks it should be “the gravy,” rather than the driver of our economy. “People don’t travel or spend much in a recession, so we suffer twice as hard,” he explains, because the economy isn’t diversified.
“Look at what jobs we have available. Most of the businesses – if they have employees, they’re minimum wage. With restaurants you got waitresses, and then there are antique shops….” he laughs and a grouse flies off. “Every time you turn around there’s another one popping up.”
Similarly he doesn’t hide his feelings about Belleayre. “I’ve got friends who work up there,” he says acknowledging the risk in even voicing his opinion. “Does it really need that many people in the summer? Granted they live in the community and need a job, but I’m paying for that job.” Rather than being supported solely by taxpayer contributions he’d like to see it “run like a private authority, so the money they make stays there.” He favors getting Belleayre full funding for the first year and only a small tax contribution after that to force financial accountability.
At the property corner, he doubles back along a logging road. Rosa’s stance towards the city is less strident than the other candidates. Perhaps that’s in part because his father is the executive director of the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC), but Jake says the city isn’t leaving so why not work with them? Plus they do bring benefits, like paying for him to follow best-practices as a logger and lending equipment to the town at no cost, a huge taxpayer savings.
His attitude about the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) brings up the question of a conflict of interest with his father. Jake empathically says it’s not a problem. If he were on the CWC Board of Directors, he’d be his father’s boss. When asked about the issue, Tim Cox the CWC’s lawyer said, “Jake’s serving is absolutely not a problem as long as he doesn’t have check-signing privileges.”
Rosa follows a path through the woods and comes to a field. He says forestry is part of his vision for the town. “It’s one industry the DEP will allow,” he explains. “And it will help owners.” If they can see return from their land, they won’t subdivide. Also good for tourism, forestry ensures open spaces instead of development, while logging roads can encourage horseback riding and hiking. Another related industry he’d like is a local chip burning electric plant. “It would provide 60-70 jobs, with wages up to six-digit salary positions.”
As he approaches his pickup, Rosa says he’s sanguine about the election. He says he’s not in it for the ego and explains that he’s not done much visible campaigning. “I’m there for two more years whether as supervisor or councilman. It doesn’t really matter who wins. I’m there to help them.”