After roughly a month in office, Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan made his eighth town meeting visit at the Plattekill Town Hall on July 17. Ryan is taking a grassroots approach to grasping the county reigns, looking to local officials and residents in Ulster’s 24 towns to set goals for the future. Although only four residents attended, board members shared their concerns about increasing rates for town health insurance, the opioid crisis and the struggle to find a steady town assessor.
“With so much chaos, and with little progress on the national level, it’s on the county level that we make things happen,” Ryan said. “When you live in a small town, you are part of the community and need to take care of it.”
Town employees’ currrent plan includes general health insurance as well as dental and vision coverage. After Governor Andrew Cuomo passed a two-percent increase cap on local property taxes each year, it is becoming more difficult to provide ample coverage. Over the past five years, Town Supervisor Joseph Croce claimed that the town experienced double-digit increases in the annual fees.
“If you keep increasing the cost of town government, which has very few avenues for revenue, it makes it difficult to come up with the money for the budget,” Croce said.
The town’s Health Reimbursement Account (HRA) helps pay for qualified medical expenses that aren’t already covered under the town health plan. Croce says family and spousal health plans are allotted roughly $4,000 a year, while single users are given around $2,000 in HRA funds. Ryan and Croce expressed similar interest in signing town employees up to the county health coverage to cut costs. This move wouldn’t be too unfamiliar, since the town subscribed to the county’s workers’ compensation program over a decade ago, which provides financial support for injured employees.
On a more somber note, Ryan and board members discussed ways to combat the ongoing opioid epidemic in Ulster. According to the 2018 New York State Opioid Annual Data Report, Ulster County ranked highest in overdose-related deaths in New York State in 2016. Although the town already cooperates with the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team (URGENT)—focusing on the trafficking of cocaine, heroin and other dangerous narcotics—Croce felt that they have yet to reap significant benefits from the program.
“Grants [from the state] represent a response to the issue,” said Board Member Dean Degraw. “It doesn’t help prevent the issue or help while it’s happening.”
Plattekill currently has no drug rehabilitation centers. Additionally, the town’s entirely part-time police force does not have the resources to police for opioids as thoroughly as they would like. Croce hopes that money earned from state-funded grants and URGENT could help provide more officers hunting drugs and dealers on the streets. Ryan also spoke of potential plans of “stabilization centers,” where people struggling with addiction or other mental ailments can be housed and evaluated before being brought to the proper facility. Currently, law enforcement can only hospitalize these people, and often see them released within hours without any guidance. Ryan and Degraw agreed that the state of mental health care in the county needs serious reconsideration.
Next came the issue of establishing a permanent assessor for the town: the assessor evaluates the value of property within the town. Croce explained that, while the current assessor Matthew Sabia has done well, he can only work part-time since he is Rhinebeck’s assessor as well. Ryan and members toyed with the idea of creating either a regional (who would represent a few towns) or a county assessor to ensure the position is always filled. Ryan understood Croce’s hesitancy to give this job to the county, but the idea isn’t off the table.
“People want to go to their own town hall and know that someone who knows the area is doing the job,” Ryan said. “They want to be able to come down and look them in the eyes.”
The next Plattekill Town Board Meeting will be held on August 7 in the Town Hall at 7 p.m.