NISKAYUNA -- Niskayuna's candidates for town supervisor disagreed over who should get credit for keeping town taxes down and discussed other issues during a forum Tuesday sponsored by the Schenectady County League of Women Voters.
Incumbent Supervisor Yasmine Syed, a Republican who won her first two-year term in 2017, is running against Democrat Lisa Weber, a member of the Town Board since 2016.
Both candidates answered the same six questions, each one submitted by town residents who packed the Town Board meeting room at Edwin D. Reilly Jr. Niskayuna Town Hall.
The 26-minute supervisor segment began the forum, and was followed by questions and answers with five candidates running for two seats on the Town Board.
Candidates for town clerk followed board hopefuls. They were then followed by four candidates hoping to represent Niskayuna -- along with Scotia and Glenville -- on the Schenectady County Legislature.
Syed and Weber were asked what they have done to protect taxpayers.
Syed said her tentative budget was released with no tax increase for town property owners.
"We're keeping taxes flat, so right off the bat we're protecting the taxpayer," she said. "In every way that we can, we are looking for efficiencies that can be had, whether that's sharing services between the town and the school, sharing services between the town and the county.
"With regards to sharing services between the town and the county," Syed added, "We just signed an agreement for a solar energy consortium that is countywide. It is incredibly important because it does many things: It helps the environment; it's going to save our taxpayers money; and its going to save us money on a municipal level.
Syed also talked about the town's move to begin a community choice aggregation program, which will allow for the purchase of bulk energy to save taxpayers money, and her introduction of a fund balance policy. A fund balance is undesignated surplus money that has built up.
"We are converting all of our bulbs in the (Town Hall) building to LEDs that save money," Syed said. "We're always looking for opportunities to be more fiscally prudent."
Weber began her answer with counter-points.
"I'd like to correct the record on a few things," she said. "In 2017, the Town Board reduced taxes for the the taxpayers of Niskayuna by 2 percent. Last year, the current supervisor proposed an increase in taxes for the town. The Democrats on the Town Board fought back against that proposal and we ended up with no tax increase.
"Now the current supervisor is advertising she proposed no tax increase," Weber added. "There was also a proposed cut to our town youth employment program at the pool last year. We pushed back against that and in this year's budget, the revenue estimates are all shaky and inaccurate.
"The press release accompanying the budget said there was no increase," Weber continued, "but the revenue line calls for an increase in the yard waste fee and that is a form of regressive taxation."
The candidates also were asked what they would do to improve town parks and recreation programs. Both candidates said they believed the town needs a new recreation center to replace an aging structure on Aqueduct Road.
"We need it and it's part of our master plan, a one-level recreation center to better serve the needs of our seniors and our youth," Weber said. "Ideally, this would be located in Blatnick Park, it's something we need to do to plan for our future."
Syed said a first-class senior center and recreation center is needed.
"Engaging in a feasibility study to determine where the best place should be for a new recreation center should be priority number one and we will do that," she said. "Once we find a sufficient place, it's determining how we can fund this new building, this new capital improvement project."
The candidates also were asked if they had voted for upgrades to the town's wastewater treatment plant on Whitmyer Drive. People who live on Whitmyer have expressed concern that many trucks will be rolling up and down their street, dropping off loads of soda waste in an arrangement expected to raise revenue for the town.
Syed said she abstained from the bonding proposal.
"I felt it was a project that began before my administration, so half of it was already complete by the time I took over as supervisor," she said. "And then going forward with regards to truck traffic and enacting certain contracts with the individual organic waste suppliers, I abstained from that as well.
"The reason why is, because unless I feel 100 percent compelled to vote 'Yes' or 'No,' if I feel I don't have sufficient information to have informed my vote one way or the other, I'm going to choose to abstain and I did in that instance."
Syed added she still had several questions that had not been sufficiently answered: "How many trucks we're going to commit to in total, and that's still a questions that's outstanding," she said. "We have to figure out as a Town Board collectively, how many trucks are we going to put on that street, how many trucks do we need to actualize the revenue, how many trucks do we need to actualize the revenue to actually pay for the bond proposal that we have taken on? We need to take all of those factors into consideration. I didn't take any of those decisions lightly."
Weber said in government training classes, taken after her election to the Town Board, she was told abstention from votes is appropriate only when personal conflict of interests are involved.
"It's our job and our responsibility to make informed votes," Weber said. "The wastewater treatment plant, that was something that was starting to be planned before I became a Town Board member, before council member [Bill] McPartlon became a Town Board member. When we came on board, we educated ourselves to the best of our abilities and made informed votes."
"I did vote for the wastewater treatment plant," Weber said. "It was something we needed to do; the plant needed to be replaced, we needed to protect the Mohawk River and we needed to do what was best for the entire town and for our environment."
The candidates were asked what they would do to improve the commercial tax base and support town businesses.
"We have to actively seek out the kind of merchants that people want here in the town of Niskayuna," said Weber, adding that people ask for more restaurants and boutique shopping places.
Syed proposed creating a business development strategy.
"Having a strategy in place, a plan in place that successfully markets Niskayuna to the kinds of business we want to come in is incredibly important and will go a long way toward bringing the kinds of companies we want to have here in Niskayuna," Syed said.
The candidates were allowed both opening and closing statements.
Weber, in closing, said she has the ideas, knowledge and skill for the office. She also criticized a Republican plan to bring in campaigners from out of town in late October.
"The Trump-supporting state Republican Party is paying people to come to our town to work on behalf of Niskayuna Republicans," she said. "Do we really want that level of meddling in our local election?"
Syed, in closing, said she will continue to put forth fiscal policies that will make Niskayuna a more affordable place to call home.
"I will continue to increase government transparency and accountability," she said. "I will always maintain my open door policy so employees and residents alike can always speak directly to me whenever they want ... I will always put our community above partisan politics."
Contact Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected]