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Plattsburgh Mayor Chris Rosenquest discusses infrastructure, racial bias complaints and other issues facing the city

Plattsburgh Mayor Chris Rosenquest
Pat Bradley
Plattsburgh Mayor Chris Rosenquest

In his state of the city address this year, Plattsburgh Mayor Chris Rosenquest noted that his top priorities include housing, economic growth and infrastructure. The Democrat recently spoke with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley on a number of issues, including what he says is a need to change the state funding mechanism for city water and sewer infrastructure projects to a CHIPs-style system:

CHIPs is for our road resurfacing, restructuring. That is money that is allocated to the city of Plattsburgh based on the number of roads that we have. It's an automatic allocation to the city. It is not a grant program. It's not a program that we have to apply for. Any type of infrastructure improvements that we do to water and sewer that is either paid for by the ratepayer or we borrow money in terms of debt service, bonding, and we pay annual debt service on making those types of improvements. We have been asking for years now and I appreciate Assemblyman Jones’ introduction of a bill again. This is not the first bill to address this issue. Last year I met with Senator Jeremy Cooney (Democrat-56th District) out of the Buffalo region I believe. He had a bill in the Senate addressing the same thing. It's one of those things where we cannot keep competing for these funds especially when we talk about the health and safety aspects of water-sewer infrastructure. But then also the economic impacts of not having updated water-sewer infrastructure. And not being able to have money to do those plans and to execute those improvements has been challenging. We've asked the state, look, just take a look at the total mileage of water, sewer infrastructure monies we have, come up with a fair formula, stop making us compete, stop making us jockey for water-sewer infrastructure funds, especially because it's really needed in the city. We're talking about replacing 1902 infrastructure, 1903 infrastructure in the heart of our downtown right now. That's going to cost us.

You've hinted a couple times now about the Margaret Street Project as a project to basically rip up and repave Margaret Street in the downtown center but also replace the old water and sewer infrastructure, which you just mentioned is over 100 years old.

The whole goal of this project was and is to replace that 1903 infrastructure. It needs to be replaced especially that infrastructure that services hundreds of businesses downtown, thousands of downtown residents. We just simply cannot afford an emergency fix for that neighborhood and for that critical business district. It's critical to get this project started now because it is going to be a two-year project. That's the estimate to do the infrastructure, the water-sewer infrastructure replacement and then come back and do the hard surfaces like the street and sidewalks.

Actual physical work is not going to start for a while?

Yeah, so the actual physical work probably won't start for another three, four weeks. You know materials do need to be procured. There'll be people out there doing surveys and marking the street.

Mayor Rosenquest, one of the other items that you have set as a priority for the city this year and probably into the future is housing. And one thing you want to look at to advance housing in the city is rewriting the zoning code because you've said it is archaic, out of date, it's preventing developers from coming in to do things. What needs to be changed in the zoning code that would accomplish that?

A number of things such as parking minimums. That's one issue that we're starting to see with this zoning code change that would help facilitate development. A number of other concerns such as limitations of housing density on a parcel as well. That's something that we've seen nationally be eliminated. The code change is based primarily on the work done in the revising of the Comprehensive Master Plan. You know, we spent the last two, maybe two-and-a-half years completing that work. That identifies the need for what's called a 15-minute neighborhood where you can access the majority of the services and entertainment that you want to access within a 15-minute walk within your neighborhood. The whole understanding right now is to really take a look at a more comprehensive update of the zoning code and then we'll also frame development in the city for the next three decades.

Mayor Rosenquest there was a bit of news out of your office and the police department with the anonymous letter and its complaint. Can you provide our listeners with the latest on that?

Yep. March 8th my office and the Common Council received an anonymous letter making claims that racist comments were made by Provisional Chief (Bud) York to an African American officer in the department. My first response to that was to send the email to our Corporation Counsel and labor attorney. So next day, we get in a room, have this discussion and figure out what needs to happen. I believe the next day was also a council meeting. So we ended up calling an emergency meeting of the Public Safety Committee, having a conversation with the committee on next steps and potential next steps, which followed through with interviews with those two officers named explicitly in the anonymous message. Based on those interviews, it was denied that any racist comment was made either by Chief York or any racist comment received from Chief York to the African American officer that serves in the Plattsburgh City Police Department. And then from there a message was sent to the anonymous email outlining the city's robust whistleblower policy. We've unfortunately have not heard back from anybody who may be monitoring that email address. And so at this point we've made reference and referred this to the AG’s (Attorney General) office for consideration as well as New York State Police for any criminal concerns that we may have with making the claims as well as any activities in the department itself that could be cause for criminal activity. We still do want to know if there is racism in the department or leadership making racism racist comments. We want to know that. We want to know if the email was sent to cause this kind of disruption. We just don't know. And so at this point we're going to continue the process of investigation.

One of the things that you've mentioned, I want to say repeatedly, is the need to revamp civil service saying it's archaic, outdated. How is it affecting the city's ability to hire in the various departments that are civil service dominated?

It's a frustrating process. Not only do the rules just not make sense but when you talk about trying to hire a expert in a very nuanced field and the number of impediments to be able to do that, no wonder why we have problems keeping people. Or no wonder why we have problems identifying good talent. A municipality like the city of Plattsburgh we are not immune to workforce competition. People have options. People have good options. And so for us to say, okay we want to hire a high level executive who has 20 years of experience doing police work and these people start to apply for the job and we say okay well who has applied for this job? And they say, well, we can't tell you. Well, hold on. This is the person that I'm going to hire. You're telling me I can't I don't, I can't be told who's applying for this job! Thanks for not really being helpful. And I'm sure we're not the only municipality or only agency that needs the leverage or use Civil Service process and follow those guidelines that are as frustrated if not more. But again we have to follow these rules. But there's also this either hesitancy or this inability to change them for no real good reason.

Well, you've been appointed to the executive committee of the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials. Will that help perhaps make changes in some of the issues that Plattsburgh would like to see changes made?

In civil service?

Not only civil service, but in other areas too.

Yeah. My appointment to the executive committee of NYCOM, New York Conference of Mayors, is a great honor. It certainly is an ability for the city of Plattsburgh to be represented at a level, at a state level, which we probably have not seen in quite some time. So leveraging that relationship and leveraging that position is critical for the growth of the city of Plattsburgh. And we will see some issues that not only impact our community but throughout the state be addressed in that capacity as I serve at NYCOM. Issues again like CHIP-style funding for water-sewer. Those types of things are things that we continue to advocate and lobby our legislative partners for.

And before we finish the Crete Memorial Civic Center. They had passed resolutions a while ago that would move things forward to get it deconstructed, demolished. It's still there. What's the status?

The council approved a demolition contract and funding last year. The contractor is currently on site. They are doing some asbestos abatement. Based on the surveys, the asbestos surveys that we did, there's very little asbestos in that building only located in some glue around the HVAC systems on the roof. And so they're out there doing that abatement now with a planned demolition time of anywhere between end of March to end of April. So by the time the beach opens up this year we will see a blank slate on the beach and the Crete Civic Center will no longer be there.

Extended conversation with Plattsburgh Mayor Chris Rosenquest

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