January 2016 20 Questions: Joseph M. Butler Jr., City of Watertown

Charting a new course

Joseph M. Butler Jr., talks about his vision for Watertown during an interview in the conference room at his Community Bank office on the eve of his swearing-in as mayor of the City of Watertown. Photo by Stephen Swofford, NNY Business.

Joseph M. Butler Jr., talks about his vision for Watertown during an interview in the conference room at his Community Bank office on the eve of his swearing-in as mayor of the City of Watertown. Photo by Stephen Swofford, NNY Business.

Mayor Joseph M. Butler Jr. shares his
vision for a city that celebrates its victories

On the eve of his swearing-in as mayor of Watertown, Joseph M. Butler Jr. is decidedly optimistic about the city’s future while talking about its challenges. In short order, he hopes to see a city where people talk more about “our victories over drugs opposed to our defeats.” He also envisions a downtown “that flourishes morning, noon, afternoon and evening.” After serving two terms as a city councilman, the 48-year-old financial advisor took the same oath of office on Jan. 1 that his father, Joseph M. Butler Sr., took in 2000. We sat down with the young mayor hours before he began a new four-year term, taking the reins from the same man the elder Mr. Butler defeated in 1999 to become mayor.

NNYB: What drew you to public service?

BUTLER: My father gave me a lot of exposure. Growing up, my dad was a supervisor, when there were supervisors, and then became legislator. I saw the good deeds and the enjoyment he received from it. I thought it could be fulfilling and rewarding as well. I always knew that I would at some point seek elected office, but truth be told, Jeff Smith called me eight and a half years ago and said you should run for City Council. I said I’ll consider it and a few days later I decided that the time was right and its history as they say. That phone call was a big part of why I’m here today and a day before I’m getting sworn in as mayor. Although it was on my radar that happened to be fire to get it going.

NNYB: Your father served a term as mayor. What advice has he given you as you prepare to take office?

BUTLER: He’s proud. He’s extremely proud of his son following in his footsteps and it’ll probably be emotional for him tomorrow, probably for me as well. It’s not often that something like that happens. I think it’s only the second time in the history of Watertown it’s happened. My dad’s an honorable, upstanding citizen. I love him and to follow in his footsteps just means a great deal to me.

NNYB: You served two terms on City Council, why is now the best time for you to serve as mayor of Watertown?

BUTLER: You have an incumbent that’s been in here for five terms. It was evident that people wanted change and given my eight years of experience on the council and my track record I thought that at that point I would be a viable candidate. Mayor Graham is a seasoned veteran, a very intelligent man and knows city government as well as anybody. He’s a hard campaigner too and he has the time to campaign, so I knew it would be a tough challenge, but in the end it worked out better than
I expected. I worried maybe too much.

NNYB: What is the No. 1 reason for optimism today in Watertown?

Expression Strip2 WEBBUTLER: The development you have in the downtown corridor is a significant amount of money by any terms and that’s in conjunction with the rebuild of Factory Street and there’s a very good chance we’re going to develop Western Boulevard and connect Coffeen and Arsenal streets. It could be the major retail hub of the area. Then, you have the Mercy project that will hopefully be unveiled in the near future and that could be $60 million to $70 million of investment. You have the redevelopment of Woolworth Building and the Lincoln Building. There is a tremendous amount of investment unlike what we’ve seen in decades in the downtown area, as well as some on the outskirts. There’s a lot to be excited about.

NNYB: What is needed most to unlock positive economic change in Watertown and the surrounding region?

BUTLER: There is an opportunity to bring manufacturing back to the area because the cost of land is lower. We’ve seen manufacturing leave China and come back to the U.S. We need them to relocate to Jefferson County. It’s difficult in the state because we’re infamous for high taxes on a number of levels, but we have a good labor force, we’re well located, land can be cheap and we have an excellent source of water. The Black River is our biggest natural resource and there’s a tremendous amount we can do based off of that. You’re going to have to make it enticing for them to come back, but I think once people come they fall in love with the area. We need to do a better job promoting the economy, promoting the benefits of living here, working here, playing here and enjoying life here. That’s what life is all about and we can do a better job from the downtown area out.

NNYB: How do you plan to engage residents to build a prosperous future?

BUTLER: You start when they’re young. There’s a lot of apathy among the 20 to 35 year old crowd. I think most of the voters and the people that attend City Council meetings that I received phone calls from, they’re people that have children or they’re retired. You don’t get a lot of young people doing things like that. There are youth philanthropy groups that run through the Northern New York Community Foundation that I think are very good. We do volunteer days. I think ultimately parents are going to be the best advocates for their children and letting them know. Teddy Roosevelt once said everyone should spend at least a few years in public service. He thought that was an obligation and that every citizen should follow up on. I don’t think that’s going to happen, be we certainly can get people more involved in the political process.

NNYB: What will Watertown look like in five to 10 years?

BUTLER: A city where I don’t receive a text, email, or phone call about an overdose of heroin. A city where we’re talking about our victories over drugs opposed to our defeats. That’s important to me. A downtown that flourishes morning, noon, afternoon and evening. A place where you’re raving about how great it is to live in the city of Watertown. That’s the legacy we’re trying to leave. Trying to restore what I think we had several decades ago which is just a great place to work and a great place to raise a family.

NNYB: Drug crimes have increased during the past decade. What needs to happen to reverse that trend?

STEPHEN SWOFFORD n WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES Incoming Mayor Joseph Butler Jr. sat down with NNY Business for 20 Questions.

BUTLER: It’s a regional problem. It’s going to be solved on a regional basis. There are things that we’ll consider, which would be an increase of personnel on the drug task force. I’ve lobbied the lieutenant governor to help provide us with state police support, personnel-wise, not just sharing information and being cooperative, but also having an understanding where we have personnel that can help us day-to-day. We don’t have any treatment centers in the area. That needs to change. We don’t need to be sending people to other counties and outside the state if we have a treatment center. That’s something we need to look at.

NNYB: What can technology help to improve government efficiency?

BUTLER: On a small scale, I’ve always looked at tablets instead of having a packet of papers delivered to your house. Paperless agendas, they do it elsewhere. I’ve talked about that in the past. In my last eight years, I lobbied for the use of credit cards in city hall to pay bills, to pay taxes and to pay your water and sewer. Electronic banking is now a bigger part of our city where it was absent in years past. We’ve come long ways on making it more efficient both on the consumer side and on our side. We can continue to do that as we go forward. If you look at city hall chambers, we’ve talked about having a state-of-the-art video screen because we do a number of presentations there and it’s a lousy setup the way it is now. It wouldn’t take a significant investment to make it very professional and user-friendly.

NNYB: What should done for the area’s legacy firms like Car-Freshner and New York Air Brake to ensure they remain in Watertown?

BUTLER: We’re fortunate to have those businesses here. We just need to reach out and let them know we’ll be good partners. We want to help them when we can. We want to be responsible for maintaining and continuing that legacy and not be disruptive. Sometimes it’s a hands-off approach. Other times we do need to get involved. It could be in negotiating a pilot or some type of arrangement where we can provide water or sewer.

NNYB: How can the city and region work to diversify the economy so we’re not so dependent on Fort Drum?

BUTLER: You’re talking about unraveling decades that have gotten us here where we are as dependent on Fort Drum. You’re talking about a monumental economic shift in thinking. A lot of good people, a lot of smart people doing the right thing on a daily basis can start to make small changes that in the long run can be significant. I want to try to be part of that role, working with our folks at the state level or federal level, finding ways to promote Watertown from a business perspective. If you look at the retail sector on the outskirts of the city you’re going to see phenomenal numbers. People are in the area. We’ve got to divert them to the downtown area.

NNYB: We’re almost a one-industry region. How can you reverse that?

BUTLER: There’s a variety of laws and exemptions that exist on the books to make it somewhat attractive to relocate your business here. We don’t have a mixed-use exemption right now for retail and for commercial residential. That’s something we’ve talked about in the past and that’s something we should probably look at in the near future. It will give people a little more incentive to relocate in the downtown area. We’ve got to think about doing things differently.

NNYB: Are you concerned that the redevelopment of downtown is not attracting sustainable retailers as the majority of the apartments around the Square are income restricted?

BUTLER: The low- to moderate-income projects that we’ve done throughout the city are needed. You’re not necessarily going to build an empire downtown based on those demographics, so we need to bring people into downtown that don’t necessarily live in downtown. There’s going to be a certain number of people that live downtown and will shop in downtown, but when it comes to the after hours shopping, eating and drinking, other than the Paddock Club and the Crystal it’s downhill from there. That could be changed.

NNYB: It’s been said that government doesn’t create jobs it merely helps to create the conditions in the marketplace that can help to create jobs. At your level what can be done to improve conditions for job creation in the region?

BUTLER: We’re the facilitators. We can help provide some of the necessary infrastructure: water, sewer. We can work with the on pilot programs and find them places to locate their business. We can do a better job of promoting Watertown. We’re proactively out there talking to developers throughout the country.

NNYB: You’re a finance guy who took some heat for such a calculated decision-making process on the city arena. What was important to you about getting that project right?

BUTLER: You don’t want to compromise the financial integrity of your city. That’s extremely important because we’ve worked hard to reduce our debt. You can’t generate significant revenue unless you were to raise taxes significantly and obviously we don’t want to do that. I always worry about the financial strength of the city because it affects your borrowing and it will affect the demand you place on taxpayers. You look at the arena and that’s probably $500,000 a year in additional expenses for a longtime. We can afford it. I wouldn’t have voted for it if we couldn’t, but it ramps you up on debt and puts you in a position to be careful going forward. I don’t want to be the one that unravels the good financial standing of the city.

NNYB: What inspires you? What is most inspiring to you as you settle in as mayor?

BUTLER: I care deeply about the city where I was born and raised. I love the community and to be able to be the mayor of a community that’s has given me and my family so much is just an honor. Words can’t express the gratitude I have.

NNYB: What’s the best advice you’ve ever followed and who gave it to you?

WEBBUTLER: The day that I told my mother that I was going to marry my wife, Sandie, she said that’s probably the best decision you’re ever going to make. After 20 years, I would have to say that that heart-to-heart my mom and I had was pretty darn good advice that I followed through on.

NNYB: Are you in your dream job now?

BUTLER: I love my career at the bank and I’ve been very fortunate to make a career in the wealth management business, but it’s funny because when I was in college they said I always talked about the city where I grew up. The joke at the time was you’re going to be mayor of Watertown someday. I’ll be damned if it didn’t come true. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to come true and it has. It’s a dream come true.

NNYB: What have you learned from the people you work with in terms of leadership?

BUTLER: Follow through on what you say you’re going to do. Treat people with respect. Every person I try to treat with respect and make it important whether they have a few dollars or a million dollars. I try to make them feel like they’re getting the best they can from me. It’s their city, so if they have something they want to talk about they can take as long as they want to tell me about the issue that’s of importance to them.

NNYB: What keeps you motivated during
challenging times?

BUTLER: I put a lot of pressure on myself to do a good job and to do the right thing. I’m trying to build a career based on character, principle and professionalism. I guess fear of failure has been a motivator. I care about the legacy I leave. You just want to conduct yourself as a professional and do the right thing because someday you’re not going to be here and they’re going to talk about how you lived your life. I want that to be a real good conversation.

The Joseph M. Butler Jr. file

Age: 48

Job: Mayor, City of Watertown; financial advisor, Community Bank Wealth Management, Watertown

Family: Wife Sandie, a math teacher at Sackets Harbor High School; daughters Allyson, 16, and Margaret, 12; dog, Lola,
a Shih Tzu.

Hometown: Watertown

Education: Immaculate Heart Central High School, 1985; St. Lawrence University, 1989; Master of Business Administration, LeMoyne College, 1999

Career: Financial advisor, Community Bank Wealth Management, 1997 to present; two terms as a councilman on the Watertown City Council; elected Mayor of Watertown 2015

Best book you’ve read and would recommend:
“The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy” by Thomas J. Stanley, William D. Danko and Cotter Smith.

— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.