Middletown Mayor Wants to Keep Momentum Going

State of the City addresses problems, highlights new projects
February 17, 2016 Updated: February 17, 2016

MIDDLETOWN—Middletown Mayor Joseph DeStefano’s State of the City address on Feb. 16 was well-received by the city council, and the second floor of city hall was filled to capacity with residents who listened to the mayor’s remarks on the city’s pressing issues.

The mayor highlighted two issues of immediate concern: the recent swatting incidents toward city schools and the sanitation workers protest of privatizing city waste disposal.

Sanitation and Swatting

DeStefano addressed the concerns of parents and students about swatting. “I have heard from so many of you regarding the bomb scares at our elementary schools.” He admitted he had no answers. He asked the council to pass a resolution demanding federal assistance to combat the incidents.

DeStefano laid out plans for using Heritage Trail to enhance the city.

The mayor threw his support behind reinstatement of school resource officers, which he said is a decision of the school board and superintendent. The cost to the school district would be about $300,000, and he said that Superintendent Kenneth Eastwood will consider it.

About 10 to 12 members of the sanitation workers’ union, CSEA (Civil Service Employees Association), sat in the back holding placards as the mayor delivered his address. Leaders of the union are asking the city not to outsource waste disposal but to find ways to improve trash disposal services that now cost the city $3 million annually.

The mayor addressed areas of worker safety, quality of service, and savings. To save money, DeStefano proposed using a two-person sanitation truck, rather than the three-person truck now used. Sanitation services account for 17.3 percent of city tax revenue.

Worker’s compensation claims since 2012 have covered 50 injuries for sanitation workers. “Even without a nickel of savings, our main focus should be workers’ safety,” DeStefano said, “and I started looking for an alternative.”

Privatizing the service would place emphasis on quality of service—cleanliness and recycling. “Certain neighborhood streets in this city are a mess,” the mayor said.

The mayor proposed recycling, which has increased 3.3 percent this year, and using standardized containers for recycling, which DeStafano said will yield an estimated $52,000 in annual savings.

DeStefano said he was open to less savings at the beginning to allow any loss in sanitation positions to happen through attrition. “There are ways to do this without hurting people,” he said.

Department of Public Works head Jacob Tawil supported the mayor. “We are up to the challenge, and we are going to keep on top of it.” He said the department is improving all aspects of the city’s infrastructure.

Tawil recently negotiated selling the city’s grey water resource to the CPW Energy Center in Wawayanda now under construction for an additional $500,000 revenue to the city.

Upcoming Projects

DeStefano touted projects now in progress. The soon-to-be-realized, 21-years-in-the-making Middletown section of the Heritage Trail was first on the list.

Developing the Middletown Community Campus is a big piece of the city’s renaissance.

DeStefano laid out plans for using the trail to enhance the city. It will connect with a proposed transportation center with a bus station and commuter parking lot. The state Department of Transportation is paying the $2 million tab for the center, construction of which is expected to begin this year.

A repurposed Woolworth building, the privately-developed Equilibrium Brewery (opening in June), and the recently opened Clemson Brothers Brewery are situated along the trail’s proposed path.

The King Street walkway construction is ahead of schedule. City courts are expected to relocate to the former federal court building, with $2.7 million recently secured to purchase the building.

Michelson Studios’ purchased a 60,000 square foot former rail repair yard on 12 acres and have made it the largest sound stage in New York State. DeStefano has asked legislators to grant extended tax credits to the company for film production.

Developing the Middletown Community Campus is a big piece of the city’s renaissance. The entire campus has the potential for 75,000 square feet of industrial space and an additional 350,000 square feet in light manufacturing, education, and office space, the mayor stated.

The last major project mentioned by the mayor is repurposing the former rail bed behind City Hall adjacent to the trail. A skateboard park is planned as well as the expansion of sorely needed parking as part of the mayor’s “walkability plan” for the downtown.

Director of Community & Economic Development Maria Bruni applauded the mayor’s push to keep moving forward. “We have a lot of projects that are now coming to fruition and we have a lot more projects on the board.” She said the community campus is on her radar with the recent award of $500,000 in state funding for infrastructure planning.

Destefano said city residents need to stay positive and keep the momentum going.

Departmental Review

DeStefano reviewed city departments for the council. With his recent reappointment as City Treasurer, Don Paris has helped the city to meet state tax cap requirements for the past four years. “Besides keeping your taxes down it made city residents eligible for the state property tax rebate.”

The mayor said the workload of Corporation Counsel Richard Guertin and attorney Alex Smith “has increased dramatically over the past 10 years.” He proposed a full-time corporation counsel. He said the city could save more than $100,000 a year with a full-time city attorney. For the past three years the city has spent $800,000 in outside legal counsel.

DeStefano touted the city’s recreational opportunities for younger residents. He keeps the Recreation Commission report next to this phone. When he receives calls from angry residents who complain that there is nothing for kids to do in Middletown, “I start to rattle off what we offer.” He said “people are shocked when they hear it.”

Middletown added 17 volunteers to the fire department in 2015. The fire department responded to 1,018 calls, up 52 from the previous year, and managed to save the city overtime charges of $150,000 last year.

The Middletown Police Department has implemented more foot patrols in neighborhoods with a positive reaction from residents. A five-year FBI report on crime for 2010 to 2014 shows that violent crime in Middletown has been reduced by 30.6 percent. “During this period we have had zero deaths due to gun violence,” DeStefano said.

Chief of Police Ramon Bethencourt appreciated the mayor’s support of his department. “This police department is very near and dear to my heart. I’m also a resident of the city, so I make an increased effort to make sure I’m doing my job properly because I have to answer to my boss at home, my wife.”

The mayor recognized Business Improvement District director John Degnan as “doing a tremendous job on downtown redevelopment” on BID’s $100,000 budget. Many projects are in the heart of Degnan’s area and he noted the mayor’s address “was very positive, very all-inclusive in terms of the number of projects that are upcoming during this year.”

Alderman Kevin Witt was pleased with the economic development on the mayor’s list. “There are a lot of very good things going on right now. When we get to hear about it at the end it’s pretty impressive.”

The mayor expressed his gratitude to the city’s employees numerous times during the speech for making Middletown a clean, safe, and comfortable place to live. “As our city has grown, so has the demand for services. Quality of life for a city begins with a clean and safe community.”

To contact this reporter, email yvonne.marcotte@epochtimes.com.