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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Traffic safety, mental health, environment focus of Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger’s State of the County address – Daily Freeman

SAUGERTIES, N.Y. — Ulster County Executive Jen Metzger called for enhanced traffic enforcement, driver education and improved road engineering in her State of the County address Tuesday.

Metzger, a Rosendale resident, delivered her second State of the County remarks in the packed Saugerties’ Orpheum Theatre to about 140 people. The executive said Saugerties was chosen from among the county’s 1,100 square miles, 23 towns and villages and the city of Kingston, because, “I want to make sure that we are reaching every corner.”

Metzger spoke in front of the theater’s large movie screen as it projected images of the county and the county executive illustrating many of the topics she addressed.

The county executive’s remarks came just weeks after four young people lost their lives on Ulster County roads in three separate incidents. On Jan. 8, Kingston High School students Jack Noble, 17, and Dillon Gokey, 16, were killed in a head-on crash on state Route 28 in Shokan, on Jan. 10, 21-year-old Starllie Swonyoung died after being struck by a hit-and-run driver on U.S. Route 9W in Saugerties, and on Jan. 23, Raymond E. Rattray, 22, was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on state Route 208 in New Paltz.

The address followed a moment of silence led by Pastor James Lewis of Saugerties’ New Life Church “in remembrance” of Noble, Gokey, Swonyoung and Rattray, “whose lives were tragically cut short,” Metzger said. “As a mother of young adults, my heart breaks for those losses. Every level of government must act to make our roads safer, and Ulster County will do its part.”

Metzger said she will partner with Sheriff Juan Figueroa “to increase patrols on roads with the highest accident rates” and meet with local police chiefs and state police representatives “to see how we can coordinate our efforts.”

She promised to “launch a public awareness campaign to tackle aggressive and distracted driving, and make sure everyone knows pedestrian and cyclist safety is a responsibility we all share,” and said she will advocate with the state Department of Transportation “to address safety hazards on state roads, including where these deadly crashes occurred.”

On county roads, Metzger said, Ulster will “update our 2009 ‘Complete Streets’ policy to ensure we’re doing all we can to protect the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.”

Metzger said, “One of the most difficult problems we face as a community is the prevalence of mental health challenges. I’m sure it is no surprise to anyone in this room that the number of people reporting struggles with mental health is on the rise.”

She said the Ulster County Mental Health Team has served 18% more people since 2020. “Tragically, we lost 30 people to suicide in 2023, up 67% from the previous year,” Metzger said.

“We are taking a giant step forward this year in what we’re calling the Ulster County Center for Well-Being — an integrative model of mental health and wellness services in Kingston that is available to everyone,” Metzger said, adding that the county Department of Mental Health has already moved to the center, where “non-profit partners provide walk-in mental health care and outpatient substance use disorder treatment.”

“We are very excited to announce that later this year the Center for Well-Being will offer crisis services, 24/7, for both youth and adults, giving people a place to turn for help any time of day or evening,” Metzger said.

Turning to the environment, Metzger said Ulster County has “taken major steps to implement our Climate Action Commitment, including creating a first-of-its-kind $18 million capital reserve to decarbonize county government operations. We will make our facilities more energy-efficient, add on-site solar and EV charging, and replace aged fossil fuel-dependent equipment with clean alternatives.”

She said the county’s “smart investments” will not only address climate change, but “will lower energy use and cut costs for taxpayers over the long term” as it helps “towns and villages ‘go green’ with a new $2.5 million dollar grant program in 2024 for municipal solar and EV charging.”

The county, according to Metzger, has “doubled down on our purchasing requirements, and now (has) one of the strongest sustainable purchasing policies in the state,” applying to everything Ulster County buys, “from paper to paint to weed whackers.”

Speaking to her goal of diverting 100% of Ulster’s organic waste from landfills by 2030, targeting both emissions “and the unnecessary costs of trucking over 46,000 tons of food and yard waste to a landfill hundreds of miles away,” Metzger called for a “comprehensive assessment of policy options to achieve the 2030 goal.”

“The Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency already produces nearly 5,000 tons of compost a year and can’t keep up with the demand. We have to create the programs and infrastructure to fully realize this potential,” she said.

By strengthening Ulster’s “Green Fleet Policy,” Metzger said, “Zero-emissions vehicles are now the default purchase where possible, and all County cars and light-duty trucks will be fully electric by 2035.”

Metzger promised an expansion to the county’s recently implemented free bus service in 2024 that will give residents “the opportunity to explore our amazing natural areas free of cost on the county’s first ‘Nature Bus.’”

“Some 7.5% of Ulster County residents don’t own a car, and the number is as high as 17% and 18% in Kingston and in Ellenville. I’m very excited to share that our Tourism Department and UCAT are partnering to pilot what we’re calling the ‘Nature Bus,’” Metzger said.

The free service, which could roll out on weekends this spring, will allow residents from Ulster County’s “main population centers” to access “scenic and recreational destinations like the Ashokan rail trail, Walkway over the Hudson or Minnewaska State Park; and we’ll work with local and state partners to coordinate the Nature Bus schedule with programming at these destinations.”

“We have a lot going on, and we have endless opportunities to do more,” Metzger concluded. “As I said when I came into this office last year, together, we can build a sustainable, resilient and thriving Ulster County that leaves no one behind. That’s the vision that continues to drive everything I do as your county executive.”

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