Call it “Mr. Doom and Gloom” vs. “Mr. Brightside” in the race for the Second Ward Common Council seat, which pits realtor and attorney Jon Hoyt against incumbent alderman and Democratic Party pro Tom Hoffay.
Hoyt, who was given the “Doom and Gloom” moniker by his opponent at a Business Alliance forum last month, believes that most of the city’s elected officials are too short-sighted to recognize and begin dealing with deep problems in Kingston’s tax structure and economic development plans.
Hoffay, meanwhile, eschews radical change or “magic bullet” approaches and believes the city is best served by following through on small, but value-enhancing, initiatives like the “Green Jobs” pledge and the hiring of a “Main Street Manager” to assist and coordinate Kingston’s business community.
Hoffay, 61, comes to the race with a long political resume including a nine-year stint as chairman of the Ulster County Democratic Committee in the ’90s and work as a regional representative on intergovernmental relations for then-Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. In May 2008, Hoffay took his first elected office when he was appointed to the Ward 2 seat by Mayor James Sottile following the resignation of incumbent Jennifer Ringwood. In November of that year, he handily beat perennial candidate Phil Cosme in a special election for a one-year term.
In his time on the council, Hoffay has pushed through initiatives like the hiring of the Main Street Manager (Nancy Donskoj) using $50,000 in federal entitlement funds and served on committees studying potential infrastructure improvements in the Uptown business district. He also pressed for a building moratorium on Washington Avenue after CVS announced plans to build a store there and helped the Kingston Land Trust secure its first piece of property, a small patch of brush by the Esopus Creek to be used as a kayak launch.
“There is no magic bullet answer. I’ve tried to work on very concrete solutions, I’ve been very specific about where I stand and that’s coming from a positive point of view,” said Hoffay. “This city has weathered things much worse than what we’re going through now.”
Cue the tumbleweeds?
Hoyt takes a wide view of Kingston’s problems, which he believes are rooted in a failure to adjust to a changing economy and a flawed tax structure which he fears could leave Kingston a “ghost town.” The 60-year-old registered Democrat (his parents both served as Democratic leaders in his hometown of Shandaken) got into the race as the Republican Party’s candidate after he became frustrated with what he believed was the rushed and opaque effort to renovate the Pike Plan (an effort which received strong support from Hoffay, who sits on the Pike Plan commission) and what he said was a bungled citywide revaluation.
“We’re dealing with Alice-in-Wonderland governance,” said Hoyt. “The people who are most outspoken about (the city’s problems) don’t realistically acknowledge where Kingston is. And if you don’t know or refuse to accept where Kingston is, how do you set a compass to where you want it to be?”
Where Kingston is, Hoyt said is at the bottom of a socioeconomic cycle that will only get worse unless something can be done to alleviate home and business property taxes which, he said make Kingston an unattractive prospect for new residents and employers alike. His solution — “export” a share of the school and county tax burden to neighboring municipalities. Hoyt, who challenges assessments as part of his legal practice, has studied sales trends and the results of the recent citywide revaluation and believes that the value of the city, and thus its share of school and county taxes, has been inflated. Hoyt, who served as a consultant to Shandaken’s effort to reduce its total assessed value, said that a similar effort in Kingston could save millions.
“Kingston’s value is being seriously overstated, I have no doubt about it,” said Hoyt. “And the reval data would indicate that Kingston has actually imported county and school taxes.”
Hoyt and Hoffay both support a gradual phase-out of the city’s homestead/non-homestead tax system which taxes commercial properties at a higher rate than residential ones (Last year, Hoffay voted to shift some of the tax burden from businesses to residents but fellow council members blocked the change). Hoffay, however, believes that Kingston’s cultural and historic resources can offset higher city commercial tax rates which make doing business in surrounding municipalities cheaper. That’s why, he said, he supported the Main Street Manager program and other initiatives aimed at making the city more business-friendly.
“Yes, we have higher rents, but there’s a quality of life and a cultural piece of the equation that the Town of Ulster simply doesn’t have,” said Hoffay.
Hoyt: Kingston needs to get real
Hoyt, meanwhile, believes that the city needs to adjust its economic development strategy, particularly Uptown, to acknowledge the fact that people are no longer willing to drive into the city to shop.
“If you think a Main Street Manager is going to fill retail space with fabulous high-end boutiques, then you need to go back to school and study neighborhood trends and highest and best use analysis,” said Hoyt who believes the “highest and best use” for Uptown Kingston’s vacant storefronts is small neighborhood businesses which serve the large population of office workers and expanding residential sector.
Both candidates also see consolidation of services as a potential money-saver for Kingston. Hoffay said that the council and Kingston residents need to define “essential services” like fire and police which are critical to the city, “consensus services” like municipal trash pickup which most residents are willing to spend tax dollars on and non-essential services, then make cuts or consolidations accordingly. Hoffay said he also wants the county to acknowledge its impact on Kingston by, for example, building a parking structure for workers at the County Office Building on Fair Street.
“The only alderman in the City of Kingston who has to be involved in Ulster County government is the alderman of the Second Ward, because county government directly impacts life in the Second Ward,” said Hoffay. “By being a participant you gain a knowledge of how city services and city government interact with the county.”
Hoyt sees Kingston’s future as an ongoing effort to create leaner, more efficient government by combining jobs, cross-training workers and pushing for major changes like handling assessments on the county level, rather than by individual municipalities. Hoyt added that city government needs to be smarter with more reliance on analysis and research. Initiatives like the Green Jobs Pledge, he said, are pointless without a well-reasoned analysis of their impact.
“[The green jobs initiative] is vanilla milquetoast, it’s like saying you love your mother on Mother’s Day,” said Hoyt. “Everybody wants to be green, but tell me exactly how many grants are available and for how much.”
(Editor’s note: This is the concluding article in a nine-part series which focused on each of the city’s nine Common Council races.)