CANDIDATES FOR COUNTY EXECUTIVE SPOT DEBATE AT TWIN TOWERS
By Edie Johnson
The two candidates for top spot in Orange County as County Executive, republican Steve Neuhaus and democrat Pat Davis, faced off in a debate in front of a packed audience at Twin Towers school in Middletown. In fact, despite 2 large parking lots, cars were lined along the local streets for about 1/4 mile. Moderator Larry Force, Director for the Center of Aging at Mount Saint Mary College, found it necessary to hush the applause for each candidate as they responded to 18 scripted questions that covered critical county issues. The tenor was more amicable than in previous county executive contests, with the exception of a few sharp retorts by each candidate. Each has military history with Davis having led several tours of duty in Iraq, Neuhaus has a lengthy history in Naval Reserves, including combat training in Morocco and rescue duty at home for flood victims.
Davis had the luck of the draw for the first opening statement, in which he emphasized that if he became County Executive he would emphasize progress, but not just for the sake of growth. In his administration he said he would help the county to make changes that would enable young people to have the decent pay, the educational skills and a tax base that would allow them to stay in the county. Davis said that with his “business acumen” and West Point values he said he was confident that he could bring about those changes.
Neuhaus began his introduction by offering to give up 2 minutes of his opening statement if necessary to have the room participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, a tradition inadvertantly skipped after a moving chorus by the school’s color guard. After the pledge was completed he spoke of pride he has in his term’s accomplishments including renovation of the Orange County Government Center, improvement in the county’s bond rating and a statement by Moody’s that the county is no longer fiscally stressed as a result of the administration’s fiscal work, and completion of paving 3 miles of the Heritage Trail.
When Davis criticized the Neuhaus administration for not taking sufficient advantage of the shared services, Neuhaus retorted that Davis “has no idea what he’s talking about”, and said that the county has in fact been meeting with municipal leaders and had filed a shared services plan. He added “taking a shot at our work on shared services is taking a shot at every one of our municipal leaders. But Neuhaus did not respond directly to the charge that the county’s early retirement program has the unintended result of loss of institutional knowledge. Neuhaus responded that the county had saved a lot of money by replacing older workers who were close to retirement with younger workers who begin at lower pay. He added that the workforce has also been aided by cross training and that “It hasn’t been hard to fill those jobs.” Davis retorted that the idea of early retirement had in fact been proposed by democrat Roseanne Sullivan, and that while it was not a bad idea, it needed to include a better succession plan, giving the example that the Parks Department has been without a commissioner since last January. Neuhaus claimed that was just another example of Davis “not knowing what he is talking about” and that they were able to get work started on the Heritage Trail with the DPW and that “working with them has been really great.” But Davis came back quickly, saying that it should not be the job of Parks to do paving, and that they should be focusing on keeping our environment beautiful.
The candidates were more or less in agreement about protecting the rights of immigrants and appreciative of their contributions, and were not in favor of federal interference. Davis emphasized the great impact that would result to agriculture if farmers become short on field workers. Both candidates agreed that with Orange County residents spending 1/3 of their income on housing, the burdens imposed by state taxes are too great, and there is a need both to compensate for very high school taxes and to develop some more affordable housing. Neuhaus emphasized the benefits of the contacts he has made with big business owners who he hopes will continue to bring good rateable businesses to the county, such as happened in Chester and he hopes will happen at the LaGuardia property now that the new zoning is completed, saying “I take a front lines approach and talk frequently to company leaders. He bashed Davis’ idea of using the LaGuardia property for drug treatment, saying that it made little sense to have a drug treatment facility “out in the middle of nowhere” and that local officials had been “horrified” at the idea. He added ” Local zoning dictates a lot about what can be built in a given municipality, but we have brought a good variety of jobs”, giving as examples ORMC, a number of new manufacturing plants, and others while still working with groups to develop PDR programs for farmland protection. But Davis criticized the county’s approach to these kinds of issues, saying that its Comprehensive Plan has only had minor revisions (in 2002) but had not had comprehensive revision since 2002. He added that he thought the county should have done more to stop the CPV power plant saying “Public safety policy should be more important than your next big project. He emphasized the need for a broader strategy both for business and for a balance of business, education to prepare the young for good local jobs, and to protect the environment and grow tourism as well as the arts, adding that the arts have a large return component that is often not sufficiently appreciated Neuhaus enumerated his gains in those areas, having served on the Land Trust himself, and supporting open space purchases both through the Land Trust and the Open Space Institute. Both agreed that the $13 million being held by the county’s IDA could better be used without giving as much to big companies in the way of tax breaks, Neuhaus recollected the battle he fought with C&S Grocers in Chester over the PILOT plan they pushed for. And both agreed that the IDA could beneficially require incoming companies to contribute to the Arts. Neuhaus touted the growth of tourism and hotel fees as well as presence of the film industry in the past few years. Davis again emphasized that a more comprehensive approach to be on a par with adjacent counties Davis agreed that the IDA has value, but he added “not when its operating as a loose cannon. It’s not what it should be.”
In their summations, Neuhaus again spoke of his accomplishments, with improvement in the county’s bond rating, renovation of the Government Center, establishment of job education programs in Newburgh and Port Jervis, and bringing big companies to the area, as well as infrastructure improvements such as numerous bridges that were either repaired or rebuilt. Davis responded that his approach would include input from actual local business owners. He finished by saying “My administration will have big board room, because in my administration everybody gets a seat at the table.