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It wasn’t a single defining moment that led William “Billy” Barlow to announce his candidacy for mayor of Oswego, New York in May 2015. Just as it wasn’t a series of events that led his city to a reckoning over race and inequality that many face today that prompted him to run.
Instead, it was the culmination of a succession of visits back to his hometown while he was away for college in Tempe, Arizona that urged him to run for office and, at the age of 25, become the youngest mayor in the state.
“Every time I came home, I noticed a decline,” said Barlow, who, at 22, ran for the city council to represent the Fifth Ward and won. “Homes were bought by landlords and streets were crumbling. It’s not in my nature to just complain.”
After graduating from Arizona State University, Barlow returned to Oswego in early 2013 and ran for government shortly after. Four months into being a city councilor, he realized that being the mayor was the best way he could make an impact.
Oswego is located on Lake Ontario in north-central New York, about 75 miles east of Rochester and 40 miles north of Syracuse. It is the county seat of Oswego County with a population of just over 18,000 people.
“I was born and raised here,” Barlow said. “Like a lot of my friends, we were proud of being here. There were lots of small businesses, candy shops, ice cream parlors. You knew your neighbors, everyone knew everyone.”
The Youngest Ever
When Barlow, a Republican, assumed the city’s highest office in 2015 after earning approximately 54 percent of the vote against Democrat Amy Tresidder and then-incumbent Tom Gillen, many people, he said, did not hide their skepticism.
After all, Barlow was inheriting a city where residents recently saw four consecutive tax increases. On top of this, residents also experienced a considerable rise in sewer and water rates in order to update Oswego’s outdated wastewater treatment plants and pipelines among other efforts.
“I had to work harder than most,” he said. “I am not a typical 24-year-old.”
In his quest to prove his detractors wrong, Barlow did what many thought he could not: He balanced the budget through new revenue streams such as implementing a commercial water rate on large businesses. He reduced the size of Oswego’s government by trimming down headcount and removing departments altogether. He also, much to the dismay of the firefighters union, eliminated 16 posts at the fire department. All this in his first term as mayor.
“Once I was sworn in, my age worked to my advantage,” Barlow said, over time diminishing, if not eliminating, uncertainties surrounding his youth. “I did not have the bureaucratic system ingrained in me. I didn’t have the ‘That’s the way it’s been done’ [mentality],” he said. “Some of the transformative changes we made…I didn’t know any better.”
Powered by his naiveté, Barlow’s efforts, though faced with some friction, led to the city’s first tax cut in two decades—a sharp contrast from the 40% increase imposed by the previous administration.
“I take pride in leaving Oswego in a better place than what it was,” the young mayor said.
A Reluctant Politician
Born on September 25, 1990 the son of small-business owning parents, Barlow never thought he would enter the political arena.
Growing up, he learned how to run the family business, Barlow’s Concessions. Today, he co-owns the local concessionaire that operates food carts during events. Instead of immersing himself in typical teenage activities from sports to extracurriculars, Barlow found himself helping his parents grow the business and man the stands when necessary on weekends.
In hindsight, Barlow said the work ethic derived from business management is what is helping him govern well in Oswego.
“When I was a teen I was already running my own concession stand,” he said.
In 2019, Barlow, who has made it no secret that serving two terms is a necessity in order to make a lasting impact, ran for reelection with no opponent.
And so, when Barlow had to usher Oswego through a pandemic, in a state where the death toll was and still is the highest in the country, he was undeterred and grateful for his background and five years of experience as mayor.
“There is cautious optimism right now in Oswego,” he said. “But lots of people are still very nervous.”
Barlow commended the leadership of Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose handling of the pandemic in New York has garnered both criticism and admiration. The governor has particularly received backlash on the high number of deaths in nursing homes ravaged by the virus and most recently on his plans to reopen schools this fall amid the pandemic.
“I have a great relationship with Governor Cuomo,” Barlow, who participated in the governor’s ‘Wear a Mask!’ Campaign, said. “He has been a great help to me and our efforts. I don’t always agree on the legislation he does but we work great together.”
The Year Ahead
With four more months to go in 2020 and the virus continuing to enforce a “new normal,” Barlow hopes to divide his energy between other projects, such as a $16 million waterfront project at Wrights Landing Marina. Beginning August 10, the marina will be lifted two feet in height as it undergoes a reconstruction process to avoid future flood damage from Lake Ontario. The project is slated to be completed in June of 2021.
Barlow, who has a degree in Environmental Technology Management from Arizona State University, highlighted how passionate he is about the investment. The two-term mayor stressed the importance of having projects with long-term benefits.
“I don’t want to be remembered as a mayor who has done a lot but for short term success,” he said. “It’s disappointing to see that everything is politicized.”
Barlow is doing his best to stick to that principle while serving the rest of his term.
On August 10, Barlow submitted a $45 million budget, holding the line on taxes and not dipping into city reserves, more commonly known as the “rainy day fund,” as some mayors have had to do. This is his fifth city budget as mayor and the third consecutive year he did not raise taxes; the local rate remains at $15.28 per thousand dollars in assessed value.
The social media-savvy mayor said in a Facebook post, “My budget continues to direct investment to our neighborhoods, parks, waterfront, and downtown moving our community forward, without additional cost to our taxpayers. Given the difficulties we all face, a tax increase would only worsen the situation for residents, small business owners and our local economy.”
The plan calls for no increases to any taxes or fees while withholding the use of the city’s general fund to balance the budget.
The members of the Common Council, who may accept or amend Barlow’s proposal, are expected to vote on August 24.
When asked how he forges on and makes bold or challenging decisions, Barlow said: “At the end of the day, for me, it’s simple: What’s the right thing to do to move Oswego forward?”
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