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Barbara Van Epps gets to work as new director of NYCOM

Barbara Van Epps, director of the New York State Conference of Mayors.
Provided by NYCOM
Barbara Van Epps, director of the New York State Conference of Mayors.

The New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officers has a new executive director, following Peter Baynes, who retired this year after 17 years. Barbara Van Epps began in mid-August and has been with the organization since 2006. She previously spent more than a dozen years working for the New York State Division of the Budgets’ local government unit. She spoke with WAMC's Ian Pickus.

For people who aren't familiar with NYCOM, what does the organization do? And what will you do in your new role?

So the organization, we've been around for many, many years, (we started in) 1910 exactly. And we serve all the cities and villages across New York State. So we have a wide membership, and we do that by providing three primary functions, which are legal and technical assistance. So any member of any municipality that is a member of NYCOM can call and ask any question, we have staff here who will respond to those questions. And then we offer training and education throughout the year through conferences and regional meetings and webinars. And then finally, we do legislative advocacy, so we go and fight for our members and the things they need, the tools and resources that they need with the New York State Legislature. So those are our primary functions and I think we do a pretty good job at that now, but as the new executive director, with change brings opportunities, so we're going to re-examine and reevaluate everything we're doing and make sure we're doing things the most effective and efficient way we can.

How are the localities getting along with Governor Kathy Hochul? Now, she's been in office for just over two years at this point.

I'll be honest, it depends on the day, depends on the issue. We butted heads a little on the on the housing issue that came up last year. But since that time I feel like the administration has taken a new approach, and they have invited us to the table, and we've been having very good conversations with the administration on this particular issue. So we are working together because that's what we stress here at NYCOM, it's that we want to be partners with the governor's office and with her staff, with all of the state agencies for that matter. So like I said, it really depends on the issue. But I can say generally speaking, we have a very productive and positive relationship with the governor's office.

Housing’s such an interesting example, because that's an issue where for people who might remember last session, she wanted to do this ambitious housing plan with 800,000 new units around the state. And then there were pockets of the state where that plan was not very welcome on given whatever the dynamics were in the locality. And that that leads me to ask you this question, when you're advocating on behalf of localities and they're from different parts of the state, and they have different needs or different characteristics, how do you get all of your members sort of on the same page on something like that?

Well, that is definitely a great question. I wish I had an answer for you, that was an easy one. But certainly finding legislative common ground is probably one of the greatest challenges we have here at NYCOM because as you stated, we have a very diverse membership. We have a lot of mayors and local officials that have very different opinions on a variety of issues, including housing. But I think what we were a little bit frustrated with was that we wanted to be at the table, we agree with the governor. There's clearly a problem with housing in this state. And there are a number of our members who have done wonderful things in their communities when it comes to housing. So we just wanted to make sure (Hochul would) come to us, work with us. I think we can be a great resource for the governor's office and for the legislature for that matter on this issue. We have people out all across New York State who are doing really good things and have really good examples to provide. So we just want to have a seat at the table, and we want to partner with them. And like I said, that's what we're starting to do now, and our membership is so much more receptive when we're not blindsided, when we're brought to the table and asked to work together. We want to coordinate with the governor's office on this and a variety of other issues that impact both local governments and the state as a whole.

Let's get to some of those other issues in a minute, just one more thing on the housing. You mentioned earlier that from how you see it, the governor is taking a new tack on this and this is certainly one of her top priorities for the session that's going to start in January. So what's changed in your view, and then secondly, do you expect some more progress on housing this upcoming session than where things left off last time?

I think what has changed, your first question, is that it's a voluntary program. So she's encouraging communities that want to invest more in housing to become a pro-housing community, and there's a certification process that they will have to go through. And then those communities are going to be bumped to the top of the list when it comes, they're going to receive priority for funding from other programs that this deal provides. So it's voluntary, it's not arbitrary mandates saying, “these committees have to hit the 1 percent mark, and these committees have to do 3 percent.” So it's much more bringing people to the table, acknowledging those who want to do this, and giving them the incentive to want to do it as well. I think a lot more communities will come forward. And I think we will have a remedy to this issue much sooner than we would have under the older proposal, under the proposal that was more mandates, and more sticks and not carrots.

So what are some of the other issues as you alluded to that are top priorities now, separate from housing?

Well, it's always a priority with local government (when) it’s resources, whether it's finances or other tools in their toolbox. So unfortunately, we have to go to the legislature and the governor every year and kind of make our plea for increased unrestricted aid. And it has been many, many years since local governments have seen that increase in unrestricted aid. So that is our top priority AIM funding, you may have heard of aid incentives for municipalities. So obviously, that's a big concern of ours, the fact that we're not getting any more ARPA funding, that was a two-year deal and that's gone off the table. And the state is facing its own significant budget gaps in the billions of dollars as we recently heard from the comptroller's office and from the administration themselves, pension costs are on the rise. So while we've been fairly comfortable I would say in the last few years because of those resources, because of ARPA, because of sales tax, I do have some concerns about the outlook. The fiscal outlook, both for the state and for local governments.

So what advice are you giving localities given as you said, a murkier budget picture on the horizon?

We don't want to set our sights too high. I mean, we come in every year, and like I said, we ask for money. This probably is not going to be a great year in terms of getting that result, but we're going to still try to make our case. So they just have to make sure they're spending their money wisely, which I think they do on a regular basis anyway, because they have to. They have municipal services that they have to provide, and they only have so much resources to do that with. So I think they are usually very frugal with their money, they just have to make sure they're keeping track of that. And we need to make sure they stay engaged so we can get some of these other tools. Tools to address vacant and abandoned property, for example, and reforms to the civil service law. And things that can maybe help us in other ways that might not mean direct aid to local governments, but things that they can do that will help us in other ways to balance our budgets and manage the services we provide and the personnel we employ.

So tell us a little bit about you and your background. You, as I mentioned, spent more than a dozen years in the New York State Budget Division. How did that experience influenced the way you look at things now on the other side of things with NYCOM?

Well, that's a very interesting question again because my entire time in the Budget Division, I spent working on local government issues, and I always say that I wish I had worked here at NYCOM prior to working for the Division of Budget because you're over there and while you have a lot of knowledge, I mean there are very, very smart people working at the Division of Budget, there were when I was there, there still are now. But once I got here to NYCOM and realized “wow, there were so many things I don't know about how local governments work that I wish I did know when I was back at Division of Budget.” So I wish I was at NYCOM and then I could have made different decisions and maybe better decisions when I was over at DOB. But regardless, it was a wonderful training ground for jumping off to NYCOM. I learned so much there not just about local governments, but about the legislative process, about the budget process, so I think it prepared me very well for my job here at NYCOM.

Could you be specific at all about things you kind of wish you knew when you were on the other side?

You know, I can't really think of anything specific. It's just like, all the services they provide and how they provide them and how villages have to interact with towns and what the role counties play with the municipalities that are within them. There are lots of relationships and many, many nuances that you would never know as someone working over there who's never really been in local government. Now, I learn every day something new because I talk to our members, and I know what it is they're dealing with. We have a conference next week up in Lake Placid and there's going to be 430 local officials there and I'm sure I'll learn even more. So there's just a lot that goes on at the local level that you would never understand that unless you were really in the trenches doing what they do every day. I mean, local officials are some of the hardest working people I've ever met. And on the flip side of that, they really appreciate what we do here at NYCOM which is why I love my job so much, because it makes it easier when you know that you're doing something, you're providing a service to people who work as hard as they do.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.