Middletown supervisor candidates square off at forum

Above: Video footage of the entire hour-and-a-half-long forum, which was also broadcast on WIOX 91.3 FM in Roxbury. Video by Fred Margulies.

With incumbent Len Utter stepping down after over a decade in the position, and three independent candidates on the ballot, the race for supervisor in Middletown was already getting interesting before Irene blew through town.

But on August 28, widespread flooding and destruction in the town's villages of Fleischmanns and Margaretville its hamlet of Arkville dramatically upped the stakes in the Middletown supervisor race. The flooding also flushed out yet another candidate: Current deputy supervisor Jake Rosa, who is now running as a write-in.

On Monday, October 24, over 100 people packed the Arkville fire house to hear from all four candidates: Rosa, Joe Moskowitz, Marge Miller and Wayd Jaquish. The forum was hosted and sponsored by Dick Sanford, publisher of the Catskill Mountain News, and moderated by Mark Birman.

All four candidates were born and raised in the local area. Three are local business owners: Rosa owns Dry Brook Custom Logging and Sawmilling in Arkville, Moskowitz owns Casey Joe's Coffeehouse and Arkville Bikeville, and Jaquish owns Jaquish Appliance in Fleischmanns. Miller is the Bovina town librarian.

During the course of an hour and a half, the candidates faced about twenty questions from Birman on topics ranging from energy to the local economy to the state's new two percent tax cap. Each question was posed to all four candidates, who took turns being the first to respond. The first candidate to answer a question got two minutes; each other candidate had a minute to respond.

The candidates showed broad agreement on a few topics. When asked whether the Freshtown ought to relocate, for instance, all four agreed that it would be better if the Margaretville supermarket would move to higher ground.

But on some of the most critical issues facing the town, interesting differences emerged.

Asked about the state's new two percent property tax cap, Miller was the only candidate who indicated that she might be willing to support a local override. Miller said that not raising taxes in response to rising costs to the town might just force a larger increase at some point in the future.

"The two percent cap sounds great on paper, but it's very hard to implement," she said. "I think an override would be easier to do for two and a quarter percent than in three years when it might be six percent."

The other three candidates all opposed the idea of overriding the cap.

All of the candidates spoke passionately about supporting local business and the local economy. Rosa, who is a board member of the Catskill Forest Association and also works with the Watershed Agricultural Council's forestry program, feels that the town should encourage the development of more forest-based businesses.

"I feel our primary interest should be making money off our land, and the gravy on top should be tourism," he said. "I love that people come up here and spend money, but as you can tell now with this recession, nobody's got money to spend. It'd be nice to be self-sufficient."

Moskowitz said that he thought more energy should be put into turning local rivers and creeks into a visitor attraction, pointing to nearby Phoenicia as an example of how this approach has worked to the benefit of a local community.

"If we can take some areas, perhaps some of the areas that were flooded, get boats in the water there, streamside dining, that sort of thing," he said. "Rivers that wipe things away can also provide recreation and an attraction."

Jaquish said that as a local business owner, he hoped businesses like his would thrive so that his children would be able to stay in the area.

"I sat down and talked to my kids awhile ago, and I asked them, 'What would you like to do when you grow up?' And they looked at me and said, 'Dad, I'd like to take over your business.' I'd like to have something for them to take over."

Miller -- a former TV and stage actor with a flair for the dramatic -- got the biggest response from the crowd during the forum, with a no-holds-barred response to a question about the Belleayre Resort project, which she fervertly supports.

"[Project developer] Dean Gitter was part of the problem, because he has the personality skills, maybe, of roadkill," Miller said, prompting laughter from the audience. "But we need to get beyond that...Our Route 28 corridor is dying. Our communities are dying, they're hanging on, gasping. We need the Crossroads resort."

Rosa and Jaquish expressed general support for the Crossroads project. Moskowitz did not come down either for or against the resort, but said it was unfortunate how much controversy it had sowed in the community.

"I am angry at both sides on the Crossroads project. It has divided the community for the last 11 years, and there has not been a shovel put in the ground," he said. "If you build it, it is not going to be as bad as the 'anti's' say, nor is it going to be a magic bullet."

Compared to the other candidates, Jaquish appeared unprepared for the spotlight, often responding to questions by agreeing with candidates who had spoken before him.

All of the candidates had different takes on the question about hydrofracking, which has emerged as a hot-button issue in many local races in upstate New York this year.

Jaquish dodged the question.

"As far as I know, the state laws, the way they're written is that in a watershed area there is no fracking allowed, there is no oil driling, no natural gas drilling. So my position is really neutral on it," he said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency that regulates gas drilling in New York, has published draft regulations that, if made into law, would ban drilling in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds. But the regulations are not yet set in stone, and could be amended even after they are passed into law. In some towns where voters are overwhelmingly against gas drilling, local zoning laws have been passed in a preemptive effort to ban gas drilling and heavy industry.

Moskowitz said that while he was against drilling, the town needed to be careful to avoid legal action. He pointed out that the towns of Dryden and Middlefield, which have banned gas drilling, are already facing costly lawsuits from landowners and gas companies.

"We need the county on our side. We need a coalition of counties in this area to stop fracking," he said.

Miller, also an opponent of hydrofracking, was more sanguine about the prospect of lawsuits against the town.

"I'm against fracking," she said. "We have to figure out how to take care of the landowners who are going to be tempted by that...It's about being organized and about being vocal to keep that out."

Rosa appeared to tread a middle ground on the issue, though the approach he spoke in favor of -- regulating the drilling process to make it safer -- is beyond the power of towns to control. Article 23 of the New York State Constitution prohibits town governments from regulating oil and gas drilling, though many municipal lawyers believe towns are within their rights to ban drilling and heavy industry entirely, and there is some legal precedent that supports that view.

"I'm not really all that concerned about it, just because of the [watershed] ban," Rosa said. "I would be in favor of passing regulations on what kind of fluids could be used -- like plain potable water -- and the way the packers are set, multiple packers. I think there is a way you could make it so that it either wouldn't be feasible for them to drill here or that it would be completely safe if they did drill here."

Overall, the forum went smoothly, despite a brief technical glitch in WIOX's audio equipment, and despite the standing-room-only crowd. At the end of the event, Sanford congratulated the audience on their civic priorities.

"By your presence here tonight, you have said that this election is more important than the fifth game of the World Series or Monday night football," he said.

"Or Dancing With The Stars!" one audience member shot back.

Some of the candidates have their own websites or Facebook pages. Moskowitz has a "Joe Moskowitz for Supervisor" page on Facebook. Miller has a "Marge Miller for Middletown Town Supervisor" page on Facebook, and also blogs at Marjorie Darling. Rosa doesn't have a campaign page (to our knowledge), but he's on Facebook. Got a question about any of the candidates? Check them out online -- or better yet, give them a call and have a chat before November 8 rolls around.