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A virtual debate with Saranac Lake village trustee candidates

Fred Balzac

SARANAC LAKE — In two weeks, on Sept. 15, Saranac Lake will hold an election to fill two four-year seats on the village Board of Trustees. The election — between Fred Balzac (Green), incumbents Tom Catillaz (Democrat) and Rich Shapiro (Democrat), and Trevor Sussey, a write-in registered Democrat who won’t be on the ballot — was delayed from March due to the pandemic.

The Enterprise hosted a debate for Balzac, Catillaz and Shapiro in March. As holding another in-person debate was problematic, also because of COVID-19, we emailed eight questions to the candidates and asked them to respond. The questions were the same for each candidate, about affordable housing, police reform, health care, diversity, tourism, the pandemic and the upcoming presidential election.

Responding to a question about the local housing shortage, Shapiro said the village board has established a Workforce Housing Task Force and identified four properties that could be turned into apartments. There have also been efforts to rehabilitate abandoned properties.

“I would like to see some short-term rental regulations,” said Shapiro, “both to maintain neighborhoods and to stabilize the long-term rental availability.” Balzac called for reinstituting the New York state eviction moratorium locally, canceling rent and mortgage payments for those adversely affected by the pandemic, and discussing a rent-control or -stabilization policy. Balzac would also call for inspecting apartment buildings and limiting the growth of Airbnbs.

Catillaz also cited the housing work force and pointed out that most of the land suitable for development is outside the village limits. “Rehabbing properties is one way to fill the void.”

Rich Shapiro

Sussey would require developers to build an affordable home for every $350,000 home they build, limit landlords to one short-term rental unit, and to and make corporations and LLCs register vacation rentals and pay a village occupancy tax on them.

Catillaz said that the police department is “doing a great job” and said the board already started to review existing policies and to implement reforms headed by a 10-person committee including Chief James Joyce.

“Early on, I instigated discussions with the chief of police regarding reform,” said Shapiro, who referenced the reform committee appointed after Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated New York police departments implement reforms by April of 2021.

“Our police do a great job dealing with mental health,” said Sussey, “but we’re trying to drive a nail with a screwdriver.” Sussey would phase in a community health program under the police budget and suggested having one officer work alongside one health professional.

Balzac voiced strong opposition to the hiring of Lexipol, a consulting firm currently being considered to help with police reform. He called for a series of public forums to develop recommendations for the reform.

Tom Catillaz

To the question of helping to ensure fair and speedy voting in the November presidential election, Balzac replied that he’d actively encourage and assist village residents to register to vote, get absentee ballots or vote in person. Sussey would encourage voters to mail absentee ballots as early as possible. Catillaz voiced support for village clerk Kareen Tyler, who is in charge of village elections. Shapiro said he’s been discussing having

drop boxes for absentee ballots made available on two weekends prior to the election, and for having “sufficient number of poll workers.”

We also asked how the candidates viewed a recent proposal by High Peaks Democratic Socialists of America for staffing a community health care worker program. Balzac supports funding such a program by shifting part of the village police budget to community health. Sussey would commission a study and then put the results in a ballot measure to be voted on. Shapiro agreed that Saranac Lake needs better regional health care but wondered how it would be funded, especially if it meant doubling property taxes. Catillaz said he understood that the DSA “want to supply free basic health care for everyone in the village. Even at a very modest rate this would be substantially more than our current budget.”

To better cope with the pandemic, Sussey suggested making use of large public spaces, including the Harrietstown Town Hall, for more community functions to safely alleviate some of the stress and isolation of the community. Balzac believes that state and federal legislatures passing the Green New Deal would help, as would the continued moratorium on evictions. Catillaz said that “the correct measures” were taken. Shapiro cited his work with getting signs up, coordinating the ongoing milk drives, delivering Personal Protective Equipment and publishing data summaries.

“The underlying issue,” Sussey said about how the village can better address issues of diversity, “is that people in this community feel marginalized.” He would work to get more people involved in community functions and to share their own stories and traditions.

Trevor Sussey

“We need to put out the ‘welcome mat,’ “ said Balzac, to address racism and diversity in our schools, and “organize and empower economically all our people via the kinds of programs and policies advocated by the DSA.”

“I have reached out, sat down and started talking,” said Shapiro, referencing his “diverse friends nationally and internationally,” including Nicole Hylton-Patterson of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative.

Catillaz called out the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, the Franklin County tourism bureau and hotels as ways that the village has continued to have a healthy tourism industry.

“Buy locally, support local businesses” is one way to get through the pandemic, said Shapiro. “We can aim our events for ‘off peak’ time frames,” he added.

“There’s potential to build a campground on Mount Pisgah or Lake Colby,” said Sussey, who also advocated for charging non-residents for parking during the summer and for petitioning New York state to build a new trailhead for Mount Baker.

“We seriously need to rethink tourism and diversify our local economy,” said Balzac, in order to avoid the over-reliance on tourism that has happened in Lake Placid.

The Tuesday, Sept. 15 election will take place at the Harrietstown Town Hall Auditorium at 39 Main St. in Saranac Lake. Polls are open from noon to 9 p.m. Sept. 4 is the last day to register to vote for the village election. Sept. 8 is the last day to submit an application for an absentee ballot. In-person ballots must be received by Sept. 14. Absentee ballots must be received by the village clerk by Sept. 15.

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