Districts 33 and 38: Dem reformers Reinhardt, Plotsky unopposed

Victoria Plotsky

William Reinhardt

William Reinhardt

ALBANY COUNTY — Upsetting the apple cart has become Democrats Victoria Plotsky and William Reinhardt’s stock-in-trade in local electoral politics.

Both are now running unopposed to represent county legislative districts that each include parts of Bethlehm and New Scotland (see map of election districts). 

For Reinhardt, it started in 2012, as a Bethlehem Reform Democrat running and winning a seat on that town’s board, then again, in 2015, by challenging a four-term incumbent county legislator in that year’s Democratic primary for District 33 — and winning. 

While Plotsky ran headlong into the September 2017 Democratic primary for District 38 of the Albany County Legislature, thumping her incumbent opponent with over 70 percent of the vote, then taking the general election by 11  percentage points over her Republican opponent just a couple of months later

Reinhardt’s Bethlehem Reform Democrats were a group of good-government types who, in 2012, took control of the town’s Democratice Committee. The ascendent group of reformers saw the committee at the time as a relic of an old brand of politics that died sometime in the middle of the last century: A vestige of the old-line, top-down, insular and secretive machine politics that defined the county for generations.  

It should also be noted that it’s a brand of politics that almost died, lest we forget our surroundings — as residents of the most politically corrupt state in the country. 

After a brief stint on Bethlehem’s Town Board, Reinhardt decided to take his group’s message and mission of government transparency county-wide. And so, in September 2015, he mounted a primary challenge to four-term incumbent Herbert Reilly of Voorheesville. 

After dispatching his fellow Democrat, Reinhardt went on to win District 33 in a three-way general election, defeating Republican Andrew Holland and, for the second time in as many months, Reilly, who still held the Independence Party line. 

Reilly, a fixture in local Democratic politics since the 1970s, in September 2018, again become a primary target for a group of progressive, good-government types looking to unseat a slew of incumbents. 

Now, this story might sound familiar, but, keep in mind, it happened in New Scotland and not Bethlehem: In, possibly, a first for the New Scotland Democratic Committee, eight political newcomers, who had been recruited by Victoria Plotsky, ran primary challenges against eight incumbent committee members — or half of the New Scotland Democratic Committee.

Plotsky had been elected to the county legislature in November 2017. And her road to victory, similar to that of Reinhardt’s, began in a September 2017 primary challenge to District 38 incumbent Democrat Darrell Duncan, who, in January of that year, had been appointed by the county legislature to the seat vacated by Michael Mackey who became a Supreme Court justice in the state’s Third Judicial District. 

As the incumbent, Duncan enjoyed the backing of both the New Scotland and Bethlehem Democratic committees — which meant absolutely nothing in the end, as Plotsky trounced Duncan by 50 percentage points, 70 percent to 20 percent. 

The election result was a “wake-up call” to the committees that had backed Duncan, Plotsky told The Enterprise after her September 2017 primary win. 

Fast-forward one year, to the September 2018 New Scotland Democratic Committee primary — while it wasn’t quite what the Reform Democrats did to the 62-member Bethlehem Democratic Committee in 2012, where the group ran 40 candidates and won 26 seats in that year’s primary — three Plotsky-backed candidates wound up ousting three incumbents. 

Ultimately, both committees would also end up with new chairs, in Bethlehem, Matthew Clyne was replaced by Jeffrey Kuhn, and, in New Scotland, Crystal Peck took over the party from Doug Miller. 

This November, both Plotsky and Reinhardt are unopposed in their re-election bids. 

 

Victoria Plotsky

Victoria Plotsky said that she was given a vote of confidence by the electorate in 2017, adding she hopes she has lived up to that. But, admittedly, she said that’s not always the case. 

Plotsky works as associate counsel for the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles. She and her husband, Bruce, have been Clarksville residents for the past 12 years, having lived in Delmar for six years prior to that. 

“You can’t keep everybody happy,” Plotsky said, citing as an example, her vote against the Albany County Paid Sick Leave Act in June. At the time, Plotsky told The Enterprise voting against the bill had been “tough” because it had become a “very polarizing” issue “in the community.”

And while she’s both happy and honored to run for re-election, Plotsky admitted that she needs to put more energy into connecting better with the town of New Scotland. “I feel like I’m doing the best I can,” she said; as constituents reach out to her for help with problems, she works quickly to address those issues.

Plotsky said the county should support Sheriff Craig Apple’s plan to fill empty cells at the county’s jail with homeless people and parolees. 

Homelessness is something that could happen to a person very quickly, Plotsky said, and for someone already living on the edge, who is having trouble covering the rent or may be behind already, all it takes it one unexpected bill to send that person spiraling. 

“And that’s just to a regular working person,” she said; that’s without taking into consideration people who have been in and out of the judicial system; or have mental-health issues. And “there’s also the foster-care system,” she said, where a child who was never adopted “ages out” of the system and, without a place to go, his or her only move is living on the streets. 

“If the facility is there — granted, it’s still a jail, but they are trying to make it look the best they can — then the county should support it,” she said. “The better we can help people transition out of jail and back into society, if this is going to help with that, then great.” 

As for how the county can support the sheriff, Plotsky would be in favor of adding funding for the program.  

Homelessness, Plotsky said, is a “societal symptom.” A person, for the most part, doesn’t become homeless and then all of a sudden begin to suffer with mental-health issues or become poor — rather, a person is homeless because of problems with their mental health, or because of incarceration, or because they are poverty-stricken, she said. So, the question becomes: How do you prevent the problem in the first place?

And the answers are well-known: education, jobs and job training, access to health care and mental-health care, Plotsky said. 

“There are a lot of aspects to that,” but, as for how the county can specifically help, she said, perhaps it’s through the Albany County Department of Social Services, by hiring more case workers or through greater street outreach. 

Plotsky said that she is in favor of emergency-medical costs being borne by the county rather than its municipalities.

 “It’s just too darn expensive on the towns,” she said. David VanLuven, the town of Bethlehem’s supervisor, told her the increase in emergency-service costs were so substantial that, if those increases were placed solely on Bethlehem’s taxpayers, personnel cuts would have to be made. 

“I don’t want to quote David, but that’s basically the scenario he was running by me,” Plotsky said, adding that she had yet to speak to New Scotland’s Supervisor, Douglas LaGrange, on the matter. 

New Scotland’s costs for emergency medical services have gone from about $429,000 this year to an anticipated $479,00 next year, up $50,000, a roughly 11.5-percent increase.  

The county is in good financial shape, Plotsky said, “In the Hilltowns, if the volunteers aren’t there [to] cover the Hilltowns for free and we have to pay for it — then let’s pay for it,”

Plotsky said that she supports a ban on plastic straws and stirrers. 

“It’s a nice convenience to have them, [but] there are alternatives,” she said, and there are even those who go so far as to carry around their own straw. 

As for recycling, or energy-saving, or green energy-producing initiatives she’d like the county to take on, Plotsky said that she’d like to see the “trash issue” addressed at the county level because tipping fees for both solid waste and recycling have become exorbitant.

For decades, China had been the world’s leading importer of scrap and waste, taking in as much as half of the planet’s trash. Then, about six years ago, China started to require better-sorted, less-contaminated recyclables. And last year, it stopped taking many kinds of waste, including mixed papers, certain plastics, scrap metal, and chemical waste. 

The stringent cleanliness requirements all but cut off the United States from exporting recyclables to China. By 2011, garbage had become the United States’ fifth-largest export to China, worth about $11.5 billion.

But what made the hauling business in the United States so lucrative is now the bane of the industry’s existence: single-stream recycling. 

Single-stream recycling allows people to place all of their recyclables — paper, glass, cardboard, aluminum, and plastics — into one bin. The process was created by the waste-management industry to reduce its costs; labor, workers’ compensation, and specialized trucks carry significant costs for the industry.

Single-stream collection increased efficiencies by collecting more material with less labor, and reduced costs by automating collection, using larger bins, and eliminating manual curbside sorting; the process has made recycling easier, which has increased household recycling rates.

Single-stream recycling is also the quickest and easiest way to turn a multi-billion-dollar export into nothing more than trash. This occurs when the recycling becomes contaminated, which happens when non-recyclables are mixed in with recyclables. And soon, the abundance of contaminated waste and scrap that was making its way into China triggered the country’s very low allowable-contaminant policies. 

This caused recycling-disposal costs in some parts of the United States to  skyrocket — leading some municipalities to start burning recyclables or putting them in landfills. 

The cost of recycling in the Capital Region at one point in 2018 increased by 1,200 percent. In May of that year, New Scotland had to amend its contract with its waste hauler when the cost of disposing of recyclables went from $10 per ton to $40 per ton. The contract had to be amended just a few months later, in August 2018, because the per-ton disposal cost spiked to $80 per ton.

In June, the per-ton disposal cost of recycling was still somewhere in the neighborhood of $90 to $95 per ton, but New Scotland, by virtue of its membership in the Capital Region Solid Waste Management Partnership, was paying around $72 per ton to dispose of recyclables. 

Some local municipalities — not so much in the city of Albany — have made strides dealing with the “landfill issue,” Plotsky said. 

Bethlehem, for example, has its own composting facility, where residents can drop off their yard waste for free. In an effort to encourage the diversion of more food scraps from entering the waste stream, earlier this year, Bethlehem offered for sale to its residents Earth Machine-brand compost bins for 50-percent off the retail price. And, according to the town, as much as two-thirds of Bethlehem’s household trash never makes into the waste stream; instead, the solid waste is composted or recycled.

By taking on recycling and solid-waste removal on a county-wide level, Albany County could start to think of the problem and its solutions in order of magnitude, Plotsky said. Hypothetically, compelling or impelling the 300,000 residents of Albany County to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost, could divert 10 times the amount trash from the waste stream rather than, say, if just the 33,000 citizens of Bethlehem continued with their program.

Perhaps it’s possible for Albany County to build its own recycling facility, Plotskly said, rather than trucking if off to a landfill to be buried or packing it onto a ship for some far-off destination. 

However, because the United States was able to export so much of its scrap and waste for so long, investment in the country’s domestic recycling infrastructure was never really developed

And, only recently, has the federal government begun to tackle the issue in any sort of meaningful way — which is to say, funding to modernize the country’s recycling infrastructure was included as part of an infrastructure bill that had no chance of passing

The good news is that industry insiders are writing legislation for lawmakers that would allocate hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars in federal grants to the industry insiders who wrote the bill — lobbyists from the plastic industry will almost assuredly have a better chance at securing federal dollars for their clients than the hundreds of municipalities around the country whose recycling and solid-waste programs are in shambles. 

On the Albany County Paid Sick Leave Act, Plotsky was one of the 10 Democrats and 11 Republicans who voted against the proposal.

At the time of the vote, Plotsky told The Enterprise that she understood both sides of the argument: The priests and ministers who said it was the right thing to do, but also the not-for-profits operating on shoestring budgets.

Plotsky said in June that she had raised her concern early on about not-for-profits, saying that she’d like to see a carve-out for the organizations so that their sick leave would be unpaid, but, she said, that compromise had been rebuked.

Plotsky said this week that she would back a paid-sick-leave bill — but she had caveats; for example, she’d like to see a more graduated institution of the law, which would allow employers more time for implementation. A more gradual enrollment provision had been in a previous version of the bill, Plotsky said, but not in the one that went down to defeat. 

There’s the issue that the law would end at the county line, she said, while other counties in the area, specifically, Saratoga County, has said it would never have a paid-sick-leave law.

And there’s still the carve-out for not-for-profits — unpaid sick time — that Plotsky would like to see. But, as in June, Plotsky came to the conclusion that she’d like to see a state-level solution on paid sick leave. 

One of the biggest issues with suburban poverty, Plotsky said, is stigma.

First, it’s a relatively new phenomenon so, for poor residents in the county’s more affluent suburbs, it can become a multi-faceted problem — say, if those residents have kids, they are working to shield their children from the daily indignities of poverty like making sure there’s heat or that there’s enough to eat.

And then there’s working to shield their children from the societal indignities of poverty, which, in an affluent suburb, means keeping up with the Joneses — somehow, getting their kid an iPhone, decent clothing and shoes, or just being able to give their kids a few bucks to hang out after school.

If there are services available, Plotsky said, the people who need most may reject the help out of a fear of shame. 

The answer, Plotsky said, is more outreach and communication, access to transportation, and, if possible, moving services closer to the people who need them. 

William Reinhardt

On homelessness in Albany County, Reinhardt said, “I believe that we do have a homelessness problem, and, I would argue,” that it’s a problem for which there are multiple known root causes. And with programs like the Sheriff’s Homeless Improvement Project, known as SHIP, and the Sheriff’s Heroin Addiction Recovery Program, known as SHARP, Reinhardt said that Sheriff Craig Apple has “been [on the] leading edge of thoughtful efforts to deal with the prison population.” 

SHIP provides basic health services while offering safety to people who may otherwise be spending the night in a doorway, Reinhadt said. “We don’t want people freezing to death on the streets.” 

The sheriff’s SHIP program is designed to help the county’s homeless as well as recently-released incarcerates, so, for example, by offering transitional housing and services to parolees, it can give them both a literal and figurative foundation from which to begin building their post-incarnation life. 

Not having to worry about finding a place to sleep allows parolees the opportunity to focus on finding work, which can lead to stable housing, which, ultimately, can help lower the rate of recidivism of program participants.

And the benefits of these programs, Reinhardt said, are felt far outside the walls of Albany Count’s jail. The programs, Reinhardt said, “are examples of trying to think through: How can we take care of those members of our community who are in most need of service and help them not only for their benefit, but for the benefit of the larger community as well?”

As for whether the county should support the sheriff’s initiatives, Reinhardt agreed that it should and appreciated that the sheriff, in order to keep out-of-pocket expenses low, had gone after grant funding that would cover the cost for the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society of Albany to administer the program; additionally, the sheriff had “leveraged” the county’s “existing resources,” he said, for example, reappropriating an unused portion of the county’s jail to house the homeless and parolees, to keep costs down. 

With those major costs covered, Reinhardt said, he didn’t see the sheriff’s programs as “being a big expense for the county.”

However, if there were a situation where the program lost its funding and it was on the county to pick up the tab, Reinhardt said that, if the sheriff were able to demonstrate that the program was a success, then, “in theory, yes,” it’s something he’d support.

Reinhardt then laid out an argument as to why the average Albany County taxpayer should be favor funding the sheriff’s program: In short, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

Comparably smaller up-front costs for things like, say, job training or increased access to mental-health services, will save a lot of money on the backend, Reinhardt said. Take for example, a homeless person or a recent parolee who had gone through job training, or, say, had joined one of the program’s partner trade unions: If that person stayed out of trouble, his contribution to society would be a net positive. 

Conversely, take that same person, strip him of everything he’d learned in the sheriff’s programs and let him loose on society, and his contribution to society is likely to be a net negative. 

Because that former inmate is 10 times more likely to end up homeless, caught in the “revolving door” of incarceration, a cruel cycle of imprisonment that, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, can cause “barriers to finding stable housing and employment due to legal restrictions and discrimination against those with criminal records.” 

New York State spends billions and billions of dollars each year sheltering its homeless residents, yet the state continues to have the nation’s highest rate of homelessness. And, in 2015, at nearly $70,000 per prisoner, New York State’s per-inmate spending was the highest in the country, where the average was about $33,000 per inmate. 

So, Reinhardt said, “I would turn the question around on you and say, ‘Who wouldn't want to spend money on making these people productive?’”

Reinhardt said that he is in favor of emergency-medical costs being borne by the county rather than its municipalities, adding, “I think there’s some economies of scale [that could be had] by having the county take that role,” meaning that EMS costs could be spread across multiple municipalities, which would lessen the impact that a significant cost increase would have on an individual town or village’s budget.

The special benefit district that would have to be set up to tax the users of the county’s EMS, Reinhardt said, could itself lead to additional cost savings. 

As the system is currently set up, he said, revenue is taken in by each of the county’s individual municipalities, which in turn, sends money to the county for EMS coverage. With the advent of a special benefit district, the funds go directly from the district to the county, Reinhardt said, “So, it actually saves on paperwork, transactions, and the people’s time [who are] involved in moving the money around.”

While Reinhardt said that he was supportive of Daniel McCoy’s executive order banning single-use plastic straws and stirrers from Albany County’s departments and operations, he also pointed out that it’s an issue the county legislature had taken up long before McCoy’s executive order. 

Reinhardt said that he’s a co-sponsor of proposed Local Law F for 2019, “A Local Law to Require Albany County Restaurants and Eating Establishments to Provide Straws and Plastic Cutlery Only Upon Request,” which was proposed in May

And Reinhardt makes it clear that the bill would not ban the use of plasticware in Albany County restaurants because there are circumstances where, for example, a patron needs a straw, like Reinhardt’s daughter. 

“I have a disabled daughter, and my daughter has to use a straw,” he explained. “So in a restaurant, she would be one of those examples of a customer who needs a straw. And for that reason, I’m kind of reluctant to actually ban straws in restaurants.”

What he doesn’t agree with is when take-out restaurants toss in a bunch of plastic forks and knives with a food order, or, for example, when a plastic straw is placed on the table for use by a customer, and the straw goes unused and still gets tossed in the trash.

Reinhardt had been “a strong supporter of the polystyrene ban,” and said that he’s currently supporting a piece of legislation that would build on the state’s ban on plastic bags. The proposed county law would assess a fee on paper bags, he said, which would encourage the use of reusable shopping bags.

With its current recycling, energy-saving, and green energy-producing initiatives, Reinhardt said, “The county is doing OK,” but added, “I think there is more that we can do — there’s more that we need to do, if you think, as I do, that the climate challenge is real.” 

Climate change is such a grave problem, Reinhardt said, to solve it requires “the whole world has to act,” and for “the world to act,” that means “every level of government has to act.”

He went on, “So, in that context, do I think the county can do more? Yes.”

In Albany County, Reinhardt said, “we can do more to accelerate” the adoption of electric buses by the Capital District Transportation Authority. He added that the county could reduce its own carbon footprint by setting a goal of “zero net emissions” for all county-owned buildings within 10 years, which would require more than just the installation “efficient lighting” or “efficient heating systems.”

For that, Reinhardt pointed to the county’s anaerobic digester, which is to be built in Menands, as the type of large-scale local project that has the capability to offset the carbon output of, say, the county-owned buildings even with their efficient lighting and heating systems.

Reinhardt had been one of the 21 Democrats to vote for paid sick leave in June, and said that, if the proposal were to come up again, “I would again” vote for its passage. 

While he knew one of the biggest concerns his colleagues had with the proposal was how county’s not-for-profit organizations and small businesses would be affected by the bill’s passage, Reinhardt said that his vote was based on the merits of the bill, which, at the time, were being called into question by a small but vocal — ultimately successful — contingent.

“Always in cases like this,” Reinhardt said, “you hear concerns about, ‘It’s going to affect this group or that group.’ And often, those statements, it turns out, are overstated.”

When the legislature was taking up the polystyrene ban, Reinhardt said, he heard “horror stories” that instituting that ban would cause “every restaurant in the city of Albany ... to go out of business. And of course, that didn’t happen.”

Multiple studies of municipalities and states that have instituted paid sick leave have shown that law has, ultimately, had few negative effects, and, often, the law has been shown to have a positive impact on public health.

Reinhardt said that the fight over paid sick leave was yet another example of the yawning income-inequality gap that, over the past 40 years, has split the country’s working and professional classes into two distinct groups of haves and have-nots.

So, Reinhardt also found it “a little disingenuous” that the group of legislators deciding whether or not to extend paid sick leave to all employees in the county, for the most part, enjoyed some form of paid time off. 

“I kind of felt if that was something that we came to expect in our lives,” Reinhardt said of his fellow legislators’ access to paid sick leave, “Then why can’t the workers of our community, regardless of where they work, have that too?”

More Regional News

  • School nurses can set up appointments for students with COVID-19 symptoms so they can get tested for the disease.

  • Part of the state’s winer plan for dealing with COVID-19 is keeping schools serving kindergarten through eighth grade open. The infection rate in those grades, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday, “is generally lower than the local community, so you want children in school because it’s safer, not to mention they’re getting an education, their parents can go to work, et cetera.”

  • As sales-tax revenues continue to fall short of last year’s mark and as New York State residents continue to pay more in federal taxes than the state gets back in programs, according to new reports from the comptroller’s office, Governor Andrew Cuomo has sent a letter to congressional leaders urging quick passage of more federal pandemic relief.

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