POUGHKEEPSIE – Republican Poughkeepsie Mayor Robert Rolison and his Democratic challenger, Joash Ward, discussed the issues facing the city with members of the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, as they vie for the top job in the general election.
The breakfast audience listened as Rolison, a veteran politician and retired police detective, referenced the poor condition that the city was in when he took office four years ago. “We had to rebuild city government,” Rolison told the more than 260 people there.
When the mayor first came to city hall, the finances were recognized as being one of the worst in New York and the planning department was non-existent.
“Four years ago, the city was rudderless,” Rolison proclaimed while noting that the city has had four years of progress, including three straight years of surpluses, but more work needs to be done. He also touted the strong relationship between the city and the Poughkeepsie City School District, represented on the dais by Dr. Eric Rosser, superintendent of the district. “Where the school district goes, so does the city, and where the city goes, so does the school district,” the mayor said to a lengthy round of applause.
Ward’s remarks began with the factually inaccurate claim that the city has an unemployment rate of 12 percent and has a “failed” public school system. The most recent data from the State Department of Labor has Poughkeepsie’s unemployment rate at 4.8 percent.
Ward echoed Rolison’s remarks regarding education saying that “education is a community-wide effort.” Ward was valedictorian of Poughkeepsie High School when he graduated at the age of 16.
The first-time candidate cited the sales tax distribution agreement between Dutchess County and its municipalities, calling it a deal that has cost the city millions in lost revenue. “Before we move forward, we have to acknowledge the scars of segregation that have been left on this city,” Ward told the audience, without providing background on the statement.
Both candidates were asked to list their three largest challenges facing the city and provide their plans to accomplish them. Rolison lead off with infrastructure improvements and claimed that the city has $12 million earmarked for such improvements including streets and sidewalks. “The federal government needs to get off their backsides and approve an infrastructure bill,” said Rolison, noting that the nation’s towns and cities can’t afford the costs of repairs without federal assistance.
Second on the mayor’s list was maintaining and improving the partnership with the school district. Rolison announced that Dr. Rosser and he recently met to discuss establishing a Children’s Cabinet to help advise the city on issues affecting the city’s youth. Government efficiency rounded out Rolison’s top three and he touted the millions of dollars the city has saved through partnerships and relationships with county, state and federal governments. One such partnership with the late Assemblyman Frank Skartados resulted in the city getting a new fire engine and ladder truck along with several police vehicles that otherwise would not have been affordable.
Ward’s list of top three challenges started with the call to lower the unemployment rate among the city’s youth population. Ward claims that 40 percent of the city’s youth are unemployed and there is a need for “jobs, not jails.” A call for “real” community policing came next with Ward referencing an incident several months ago in which a 15-year-old girl was restrained by a police officer in a manner that Ward has called “brutal.”
Ward called for the need for neighborhoods to be able to have trust in the police force. The candidate’s third challenge calls for a need to address the poverty rate in the city, which he claims is 35 percent. “As Mayor, I will build a strong work-study program across a wide range of local industry to expose our young people to competitive opportunities in our economy,” Ward said in his published “Strategic Plan” issued on Tuesday.
Both Rolison and Ward were asked about the vagrancy and pan-handling issues that the city is facing, especially those experienced by visitors to the city. Ward said “The last successful sweep of vagrants occurred in 2016 when then presidential candidate Donald Trump came to town.” The candidate called for a “community health plan” to help address the vagrancy issue. Rolison said that several initiatives have helped reduce the “quality of life issues” such as vagrancy.
The mayor pointed out that the community policing efforts have returned after being gone for a decade and are helping to address the issue. Additionally, Rolison pointed out that the police BEAT program, a specially trained unit aided by crisis workers interacts with the homeless population on a daily basis to offer assistance and guidance to treatment for a number of issues. “They speak to the people on a daily basis, many of whom are in Poughkeepsie because this is where the majority of the services are provided,” said Rolison. Ward also claimed that violent crime is on the rise in Poughkeepsie while data from New York State clearly indicate that violent crime is down fifty percent in the city.
The candidates were asked about education in the city and Rolison once again touted the need for relationships and partnerships while Ward said, “We don’t do an adequate job” and went after the school district’s spending, saying “We need to hold them accountable.”
Following the debate, Rosser took issue with Ward’s statements, saying, “I’d like to sit and meet with Mr. Ward because much of what he spoke about doesn’t necessarily align to what I have learned about the school district in my short time in the district.” Dr. Rosser noted that he has done a thorough analysis of district spending as well as programs offered and says that the district is “poised to meet the needs of the students.”