Bob Wood was dealt a winning hand when elected Oneonta town supervisor in 2008, and he played the hand well.
He announced his retirement last Friday, March 5 – 299 days to go until Dec. 31, he said – and expressed satisfaction that $12 million in projects – $3-plus million for a new town highway garage and $8-plus million for the long-awaited Southside water project – will be completed by the time he leaves office.
Of course, there are many other successes since 2008 that Bob Wood can point to – the expansion of the Browne Street (Ioxus, Northern Eagle Beverage) and Pony Farm commerce parks, the growth of All Star Village, Brooks BBQ’s bottling plant to be expanded and relocated in an East End shopping plaza.
But keeping the tax rate low – $10 per thousand for town, school, county and other property levies, as compared to $20 in the city – may be his foremost accomplishment. And that, arguably, led to everything else.
Of course, this was enabled by how the world changed after World War II. With 1950s prosperity pretty much everybody bought cars, and cheaper land outside cities became more accessible for homes, retail and manufacturing.
It happened everywhere, including Oneonta, where Gene Bettiol Sr.’s energetic development of the Southside drew supermarkets, the mall and, eventually, big boxes, drawing throngs of shoppers from Main Street.
As businesses and taxpayers left the city, they left expensive services and infrastructure behind: professional police and fire departments, water lines, sewerage, street lights – supported by ever-fewer people.
Same with institutions – the colleges, Fox Hospital, schools, churches. For decades now, more than 50 percent of property in the city has been tax-exempt.
During his mayoralty (2010-14), Dick Miller gave all he had to affecting a merger of town and city. With increased state aid, a bigger share of the sales tax and access to more grants, it would be a wash, Miller argued.
Wood – arguably, with a large majority of town residents supporting him – would have nothing to do with the idea.
When the merger failed, City Hall’s idea was to provide city water to the growing town, allowing both municipalities to benefit from growth and growing water revenues.
But the town pushed ahead with its own water project, with a filtration plant in Fortin Park and water lines for homes and businesses up along Route 23 and back along Southside Drive.
After a decade in the making and the plant nearly complete, Wood said he has already been approached by developers who, with municipal water available, plan to soon begin building homes and condos on Southside Drive.
There was big demand, even before the pandemic attracted dozens of new families to the two Oneontas. With the city mostly out of land, this means growth will accelerate in the town.
The squeeze on the city will intensify, but there’s a solution.
While a merger required town and city approval, the city – if it reaches the breaking point – can simply dissolve and merge into the town.
That’s going to make increasing sense, as the town thrives and the city shrivels. How much better to split the difference, to create a greater Oneonta community that shares the wealth AND the responsibilities?
At year’s end, a new mayor will succeed Gary Herzig, who is also retiring. Three candidates have surfaced to succeed him: Len Carson, Mark Drnek and Craig Gelbsman.
Regardless of who wins, part of the new mayor’s mandate will be to educate city taxpayers and residents of what the future holds, and to prepare them to embrace a Greater Oneonta where Southside’s plenty will benefit all.