OSWEGO — Port City Mayor Billy Barlow is seemingly set for a second term as Oswego’s chief executive, running unopposed only four years after taking the helm following a contentious 2015 election.
Barlow, who recently turned 29, was the youngest mayor in the state of New York when he took office in January 2016, and in his own words immediately acted “putting out massive fires that were existing for decades.” He’ll appear on voters’ Nov. 5 ballots on the Republican, Conservative and Independence party lines.
Coming into office, Barlow said the city faced a number of pressing issues, including degrading neighborhoods, a non-existent code enforcement office, crumbling infrastructure and a $1 million budget deficit. Now that those pressing issues have largely been dealt with, Barlow said the city is able to focus on other projects and improvements in the coming years.
City residents’ have a renewed sense of pride and confidence, according to Barlow, who called the change in attitude “extremely important,” and noted Port City officials would have to continue building momentum to ensure Oswego doesn’t return to the stagnancy that plagued the city for decades.
Barlow says it’s more than city government making positive changes in the city, noting regular citizens have stepped up to make Oswego a better place, however, there is still more to be done.
“We’re not claiming victory yet,” Barlow said in an interview with The Palladium-Times this week. “I look at the next term as my chance to – now that a lot of the heavy lifting in all of these areas has been done — focus in on details and keep moving the ball forward so we can keep rebuilding our infrastructure and make Oswego a more affordable place to live.”
Reflecting on his first four years in office, Barlow said lowering tax rates in 2019 for the first time in two decades and reducing sewer rates for certain users are something he’s “extremely proud” of, calling them a culmination of three-plus years of efforts.
“To be able to invest at the levels we’ve invested and cut the costs for city residents is quite an accomplishment,” he said. “They were goals we had and I’m very proud we were able to do that because it was such a burden to the folks who live in the city of Oswego.”
In addition to lower costs for city property owners, Barlow cited an improved Harbor Trail at Breitbeck Park and other waterfront and downtown improvements as successes of his first term.
“I’m extremely pleased with the progress we’re seeing and the development we’re seeing and the activity that’s all happening in the city,” the mayor said.
Code enforcement was a major issue in Barlow’s initial campaign and early candidacy, and the mayor says those efforts have led to revitalized neighborhoods in the city.
“We came in and changed the culture and I don’t think anybody ever thought that would happen in the city of Oswego,” he said. “We took the political risk and stood up to the landlords and totally changed the culture… “You’re seeing not only the elimination of blight in the neighborhoods but also the confidence that neighbors have now to invest in their homes.”
Barlow said as the city catches up “on the years of neglect,” city officials are now able to begin working to lower taxes and other fees, in addition to focusing on continuing downtown improvements and other economic development projects.
“A lot of the issues we had to face when I first took office were these huge issues that I didn’t have a choice of whether or not we wanted to take them on — we had to,” Barlow said, adding city government can now hone in on small details and changes that could translate into savings for taxpayers.
Continuing to improve neighborhoods and the community at large is a major driver behind his seeking a second term, Barlow said, adding the moment the city loosens up its code enforcement the progress made could instantly disappear. He said another four years could bring the city to a point in which strong code enforcement is a new normal.
“If we continue this program and keep up with investing in code enforcement and conducting enforcement the way we have, we’ll continue to see what we’ve already seen,” Barlow said. “And that’s the worst of the worst (landlords) unloading their properties.”
In terms of specific projects or programs to tackle in the next four years, Barlow cited a revamped International Pier — the city is seeking millions in state funding to enhance the pier — as something that could benefit the city immensely.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us and I hope that project is funded,” Barlow said. “If it’s not, my goal is to transform that International Pier and the (Wright’s Landing) Marina before I leave office.”
Barlow said there’s also “unfinished business with the sewer rates,” adding he’d like to complete more improvements to the water and wastewater plants in addition to progressing with the federally mandated sewer separation project. He says another goal is to “make good on” a promise to lower the sewer rate for metered users, which include residential and commercial customers.
“I’d like to offer the relief as soon as possible,” the mayor said of the sewer rates. “I think we’ll get there but we still have a little more work to do.”
Aside from the issues listed above, Barlow said continuing efforts to save money is always an objective, adding as the city moves forward officials must ensure it remains affordable for residents.
In terms of what could be improved on from his first term, Barlow said the city has “a long way to go in recovering its infrastructure.” He said the city has made progress fixing water and sewer pipes, road culverts and catch basins, but still has “a long way to go” and hasn’t made as much progress as he wanted.
A push to increase tourism would also be a focal point in another term, Barlow said, adding the community “still needs to tell its story to a regional audience” to attract more visitors.
“Locally people have a renewed pride and confidence in the community and they know we have the Harbor Trail to enjoy, we’ve improved our parks, built the dog park and have an ADA-accessible playground and a new downtown pocket park with concerts,” Barlow said. “Telling that story is going to be my job for the next four years.”
Barlow said he’d like to think not having an opponent in the November election is, at least in part, because of the city’s successes over the past four years. Barlow said efforts to represent all residents, regardless of political affiliations, perhaps led opposing political parties to not be able to mount an energized challenge.
“Overall there probably isn’t a single person that agrees with everything we’ve done,” he said. “But I would say most people in the city generally agree with the direction we’re heading and most of the decisions we’ve made. And agree with the vision we’re working toward.”
Despite not having an opponent, Barlow said he’s been out campaigning and still feels it’s important “to knock on some doors and hear what the neighbors are saying.” He called campaigning “a good opportunity to get feedback from folks (he) would probably otherwise not hear from,” adding it brings some small issues to his attention.
Although there is no formal mayoral race, Barlow urged residents to vote for the common council races and take them as seriously as voting for any other elected office.
“This isn’t a one man show and I’ve been extremely fortunate to have partners in government in the legislative branch who have helped execute this vision,” Barlow said. “Know who you’re voting for because I need partners here at city hall, and without a competent and cooperative council this progress will stop immediately and we will fall back to the same political back and forth, gridlock and stagnation that we experienced for a couple of decades.”