NISKAYUNA — Yasmine Syed promised new beginnings and fresh starts when she began 2018 as Niskayuna’s town supervisor.
Niskayuna voters chose the Republican — a political newcomer — over 10-year incumbent Joe Landry.
“Niskayuna can only stay the wonderful place it has always been to live and work if its elected officials work together to accomplish the will of the residents — and that we will do,” Syed said after she was sworn into office.
On Wednesday, Syed reflected on her first year as supervisor and her hopes for the second year, in which she plans to seek another two-year term in the post.
“A lot of people ask, and they probably should know I’m comfortable with saying I’m running for re-election,” said Syed, 35, during an interview in her second-floor office at Niskayuna Town Hall.
On other topics:
Q. What did you learn during the first year, and what was it like?
A. It’s been incredibly rewarding. It’s been a lot of fun. Time flies when you’re having fun, so I can’t believe the first year is already done and over with. We have an incredible team of people here at Town Hall, so that was something I was happy to learn. We have a consummate team of professionals here; they really care about doing what’s best for the residents.
Q. Has it been difficult for you as a Republican on a Town Board dominated by Democrats?
A. I’d be lying if i said it wasn’t. It has been challenging trying to break through the ultra-partisan divide, especially in those beginning months. Every day that goes by, I think it’s getting better and better. I continue to keep trying. I do think progress has been made, but the residents can take heart in the fact that every decision I’ve made and every initiative I’ve brought forward has been with a single goal in mind, and that’s to do what’s best for the town and best for the residents, not for my own personal or political gain.
Q. The board passes a lot of resolutions unanimously. Does that mean this board work well together?
A. We do; I’m proud to say we do. Much of what comes up is kind of standard-issue things that come up from time to time. If it’s something like funding a project or funding an emergency repair or something like that, they’re pretty routine, so it’s easy to get behind those … we’re all for funding an emergency water main repair. It’s things like funding certain bonding projects, particularly when I have a question or concern about it. The wastewater treatment plant was one of them — those were some of the things where I’ve wanted to take more time and consideration on the issue. I guess I wished that the board members would have joined me in also taking pause, much like I’m joining them when they table resolutions and wish for more time to consider certain items.
Q. What’s the best advice you received before beginning your term as supervisor?
A. The best advice I received was to stay true to myself and be confident in who I was and know I was qualified for this position. People who were in politics let me know that was going to be one of the biggest things my detractors would be doing — trying to say I wasn’t qualified, trying to say I wasn’t doing a good job. The best advice I received was just to block it all out and know I was elected for a purpose — that people who elected me for this position wanted me here, and that I am qualified for the position.
Q. How was the first budget experience?
A. It was good. It was a positive one. My prior position as a senior budget analyst at Albany Med primed me well to take on the budget process, so it wasn’t anything that was new to me. Nothing really was a surprise … where you start is not where you end up. I think we did a really good job working together on that. Denise (Board Member Denise Murphy McGraw) and I and our comptroller Paul Sebesta, I’m proud we were able to have a flat tax — no tax increase in the 2019 budget.
Q. There was push-back on matters such as privatization of the concession stand at the town pool and elimination of funding for public access television (both proposals were later abandoned). Did this surprise you?
A. I think it was political. No part of that decision-making process at all was meant to limit transparency or eliminate jobs for the kids at the town pool. It was based on recommendations from department heads about efficiency and cost-saving. If there are some things we can do in-house or out-of-house for cost saving, those are always things I will look at.
Q. What would you consider your achievements for the year?
A. One was formulating a budget that kept taxes flat. A second one was increasing transparency by posting the full board packets to the website so we include in those board packets both the agenda and the resolutions, which hadn’t been done before. A third was treating all our town employees with dignity and respect. I have an open-door policy, and they take advantage of it all the time.
Q. What are your goals for 2019?
A. I’m going to lead us forward with adopting our town’s first-ever fund balance policy. The goal of adopting a fund balance policy is to increase our bond rating. Whether we increase it or not, it’s always something a bond rating agency looks for a town to have. The fact we haven’t had one hasn’t hurt us yet, but I think adopting one now will put us on a good course for our financial future. A fund balance policy basically determines a set of rules for the town to adhere to in dealing with our fund balance.
We are going to establish a capital reserve fund — that’s something I called for in my budget message I released back in September. Having a capital reserve fund will also help us keep our bonding load down, so instead of bonding for certain capital items like trucks, anything that’s under $50,000 worth of value, we can pay cash for those items instead. That will also ultimately decrease our tax rate, or at least help us keep our rate of tax flat.
We are going to increase transparency by starting to livestream our board meetings. We’re in the process of fitting all of our electrical equipment down in the board room and working with our system administrator to try to get that live as soon as we can.
Q. What do you consider the most pressing issue in the town?
A. One is growing our tax base. We are pretty much built out as a town; we have a scarce amount of property left to develop. So, that’s particularly challenging because being someone who does not want to raise taxes, unless we expand our tax base or get some kind of avenue toward new revenue, the only way we can do it is by developing existing parcels or re-developing existing parcels. I’m going to be looking toward the rezoning of the O.D. Heck building. That’s priority one. That’s that whole swath of land adjacent to Mohawk Commons … that’s going to be prime for re-zoning and finding the most appropriate re-zone for that — whether it’s going to be light light industrial, commercial, residential — and making sure we are adhering to our comprehensive plan, as well.
Q. One of the town’s most controversial issues lately has been the Holocaust memorial proposed for Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery. How do you see that developing this year?
A. If we have forums and truly have an open and transparent process — bringing everyone to the table: the community, the Holocaust memorial committee — if we satisfy both parties, I think it will be a success, and I think it will be something we can all be proud of.
Q. Any timetable on that?
A. They’re proposing for it to come back to the Town Board in June. Hopefully, we can have our first forum in March, so we can give everyone adequate time.
Q. What has been the most fun about this job?
A. I would say the most fun has been inspiring young women to run for office. I get a lot of young girls — high school age girls — reaching out to me. I have one girl in particular, Shivani Singh, who will be shadowing me. We’re setting that up.