Supervisor Shea appears alone at forum
Philipstown Town Board candidates traded views on town finances, dirt roads, fire department consolidation, and other potentially divisive issues Monday night, often agreeing on the major questions facing the town and limiting disagreements to approaches rather than ideology.
One exception: banning guns from public meetings. Democrats Nancy Montgomery and Dave Merandy, and Republican Barbara Scuccimarra, vying for two councilor slots on the Town Board, appeared at a public forum with Supervisor Richard Shea, a Democrat running for re-election. Shea’s opponent, Lee G. Erickson, a Republican, and the fourth councilor candidate, Katie Giachinta DeMarco, another Republican, both declined to participate in the two-hours-plus event, held in the HaldaneMiddle School. Sponsored by Philipstown.info, whose publisher, Gordon Stewart, moderated, the event drew about 65-70 attendees. Like Shea, Scuccimarra and Montgomery are incumbents.
Asked to cite the most pressing challenges facing the town, the candidates uniformly mentioned money. “It’s always going to be about the budget,” Shea said. In a down economy, “it’s more challenging than ever. We went through the entire budget and cut things out” for the 2011 budget and pared about $500,000 overall, he said.
At the same time, the town faces serious infrastructure problems, adding to the financial worries, he said, pointing to recent Hurricane Irene wreckage as one example. “We did experience some incredible damage. Roads are still closed,” he said, raising questions of “how you pay for” such massive repairs. The town is pursuing federal disaster-relief funds as one step. He found a silver lining in the upheaval: “This, as bad as it was, will give us an opportunity to address some long-standing concerns.” [Watch excerpt here.]
The supervisor emphasized that budget and infrastructure issues will be ongoing concerns, to be addressed in a variety of ways. For example, with Town Hall inadequate and desires to establish a senior citizen center, among other facilities, the town is committed to taking space at a planned local-government complex at the old Butterfield Hospital site, Shea said. He described assisting seniors, now relegated to make-shift quarters for a meals program, as particularly crucial. “I do want to make sure we take care of our most vulnerable” and at the same time provide a town facility to better serve general public needs, he said.
Such planning inevitably circles back to the question of money. “How do we sustain ourselves? How do we get more money?” Shea said. Partial answers, he proposed, include more diligence in pursuing fines, consolidating jobs, shaving costs, and constant reviews of the state of the budget. The town’s topography limits development, he noted. At the same time, he suggested, Philipstown’s landscape is valuable in and of itself. “We’re not Fishkill, for a lot of reasons. We’re in the business of scenic beauty and natural resources” that draw visitors, home-buyers, and others. Furthermore, the recent rezoning, while safeguarding the town’s natural assets, assists businesses. “Supporting the businesses we have, I think, is really crucial.”
Shea referred to the four-year run-up to the new zoning law as a “big battle” from which consensus ultimately emerged. After vociferous criticism, several drafts, and numerous meetings — public sessions and individual discussions with concerned residents — the final version emerged, better for all the public input, the supervisor said. “That document, of anything I’ve done, I’m the most proud of,” he said.
Responding to a question posed by a Philipstown.info reader, he defended the Town Board’s initiative in the fire department and emergency services study, known as the Graner Report, released in late spring. “We spend $2.7 million a year on emergency services. That demands a close look” and the Town Board can’t shirk the responsibility in fear that controversy might ensue, Shea said. The report “was harsh; it was overly harsh,” and not everything in it needs to be implemented, he said. Nonetheless, he added, “There are a lot of valuable things in that report, things that need to be addressed.” Overall, the review “was worth doing,” he concluded.
One of his goals for the future involves another potentially volatile subject -– a town-wide “re-val,” or re-valuation of properties for tax purposes. Currently, Shea said, glaring discrepancies exist, with some expensive properties taxed too little while modest properties are taxed too much. “As an issue of fairness, we need to do a re-val,” he said. He discounted the claim that a re-val amounts to a redistribution of wealth. “You can’t call that a redistribution of wealth,” he said. “What you call it is being fair. We’re looking at doing what’s right; what’s equitable.”
Asked why he is running for office, Shea cited his desire to maintain all that’s good about Philipstown. “I think it’s well worth preserving. What is in the interests of Philipstown? That is the fundamental issue.” Noting the absence of Erickson, he said, “I wish he was here. I’m sure he has the best interests of the town at heart.” But ensuring that the town is well served takes experience, Shea asserted, mentioning his own eight years on the Town Board before becoming supervisor as extremely valuable. In running the town, “you’ve got to make tough decisions every day” while weathering flack from those who dislike actions taken, he said. “I do things for the town because I think they’re best for the town. I care about the town deeply and that’s why I want to continue as supervisor.”
With only one town supervisor candidate present, the evening’s give-and-take came from the town councilor candidates. Like Shea, all three emphasized the importance of confronting fiscal issues. “First and foremost, I believe it’s taxes.” While cutting taxes is probably impossible, “we can make the most of our tax dollars, re-engineer how local government thinks … and just be smart about our dollars,” Scuccimarra said. “It’s all about efficiency.” She backed the move of town government offices to a proposed local government complex at the old Butterfield Hospital property in Cold Spring, where such departments as the town and Nelsonville judicial courts might be combined. “We have three courts within a mile of each other. That’s ridiculous,” she said. “We can share services. I hate to say ‘consolidate,’ because that’s such a buzz word,” she added.
Montgomery said that “the most challenging years in decades have been the last two. What we face moving forward is an even bigger challenge.” She noted that “unfunded mandates are up; costs are up, revenues on all fronts are down,” except for recreation fees, and employee benefits have escalated. “At the rate these benefits are increasing, we will face a shortfall,” she said. She and Scuccimarra both explained that the Town Board now requires employees to pay a portion of their health care insurance and called the board decision one of the most difficult they have made. Going forward, Montgomery suggested, the town might join with the Haldane and Garrison school districts and villages of Cold Spring and Nelsonville in a combined employee health program. “We need to take a good hard look at these alternatives,” she said.
Merandy commented that setting benefits also involves negotiating with unions, familiar to him from his work on the Haldane school board. “You have to reach some kind of consensus with the other party,” he said. Overall, good financial stewardship means the Town Board must go over the budget “line by line,” he said. Beyond that, “I think it’s being vigilant. I think it’s getting as much input as you can from people.” He also recommended that the town set up a committee to study sales tax and if it becomes clear that inequities exist, push for changes. Unlike most counties, Putnam County does not return a portion of local sales tax to towns and villages. “We should be lobbying,” he advocated. “We have to have our fair share.” He also referred to the monetary implications of infrastructure demands, pointing out that the Town Hall, the town’s main meeting facility, does not comply with federal law on access for the physically handicapped. “We have to make some investment in these things,” Merandy said.
The maintenance of dirt roads likewise drew the candidates’ attention. Public opinion has been split over the merits of preserving dirt roads, considered scenic and historic, versus paving them to reduce costs and erosion. “It’s a serious issue; it’ll be a contentious discussion, I think, but one that has to be,” Merandy said. He supported the concept of a comprehensive study and committee to review the situation. “There are some roads that wash out every other day. That’s a high cost.”
“The roads definitely need to be addressed,” Scuccimarra concurred. “I love the look of a dirt road” but “I see where our taxpayer dollars are being washed away every storm.” She referred to concerns that paving would create run-off problems for wetlands, but said that dirt-road erosion currently harms wetlands, too. Disagreeing on the value of utilizing a roads committee, she recommended relying on the expertise of Highway Superintendent Roger Chirico. Running unopposed, Chirico is also a Republican candidate for office in the Nov. 8 election.
“The roads belong to all of us. I’d like to build consensus” in the town, said Montgomery, who also endorsed a suggestion by Shea for a long-term plan for roads. She said residents affected by dirt-road drainage problems complain of water pooling in their yards or homes. Moreover, she said, “there are other environmental solutions to dirt roads, rather than paving.”
Fire department issues
Fire department and emergency services issues surfaced in regard to the controversial “Graner Report,” the study conducted by Ron Graner, a consultant hired by the Town Board with grant funding, to survey conditions at the town’s four fire departments and two ambulance corps and recommend possible improvements. Disinclined to participate in the study, fire department members roundly condemned Graner’s findings, which included the recommendation that the four fire companies be consolidated in a new town-wide fire district. Scuccimarra termed the fire study “a disaster.” Though undertaken with the best intentions, it antagonized volunteer firefighters, she said. Nonetheless, she predicted that long-term, local firefighters will see more sharing of services and departmental interaction as worthwhile. She also said a positive outcome of the study was the better communication it prompted among fire companies.
Montgomery, who said she took on the heated subject despite the political pitfalls, said that Scuccimarra had joined the rest of the Town Board in calling for the review and that the fire departments were well aware of the planned study. Furthermore, “the reason for the study was not consolidation” but to help gauge whether the public and volunteer firefighters were being served and that the town was fulfilling its responsibilities, Montgomery said. She said she remains unconvinced that consolidation of fire departments is the best approach, but backed sharing and cooperation. The town can also pursue the most beneficial recommendations of the Graner document without adopting all of it, she said. Meanwhile, she continued, the study and controversy over it has produced favorable publicity for the fire companies, increased efforts to address firefighter safety issues, and boosted interest in inter-department training beyond previous levels. In addition, the town recently established a new emergency operations center that functioned extremely well during the hurricane crisis, she said.
If consolidation was not the purpose for launching the study, “I don’t think that was made clear to them,” the volunteer firefighters, Merandy said. “It wasn’t an attack on anyone, but that was how it was perceived,” he said. However, he said he supports the Town Board in undertaking the study to ensure public money was spent wisely and fire companies have the right equipment and assistance. In any case, he said, “there are different ways to consolidate,” such as in the area of financial management. “It doesn’t have to be a massive take-over of one department by another.”
Guns at public meetings
The councilor candidates also expressed differing views on outlawing guns at public meetings. Backed by some residents, the Town Board considered such a law last spring, but pulled back after acrimonious opposition developed. “It wasn’t our part to challenge the U.S. Constitution,” Scuccimarra said. “It’s the crazy people” with guns who pose threats, but the town law would have penalized responsible gun-owners who have licenses and training, she said.
Merandy criticized the idea “that just because they [gun-owners] have a license they’re going to be responsible.” He said he does not see a place for a gun “at a school, a community center with children, or at a meeting that can get heated.” However, he also said he did not know how a law prohibiting guns at public meetings could be readily enforced.
Montgomery questioned the apparent enthusiasm of gun-law opponents for rallies while remaining uninvolved “when somebody’s First Amendment right is being violated because they’re too intimidated to speak” at public meetings on controversial topics.
Rezoning and absent candidates
All three councilor candidates supported the town’s new zoning law. Although in some ways still “a work in progress,” Scuccimarra termed the revised code “one of our greatest achievements. I think we’ll look back in 20 years and say, ‘thank God we did it.’ ” Montgomery described being inspired by the planning and community input that underlay the rezoning, though she said she wishes a section dealing with ridgeline protection had not been dropped from the final version and wants to work to get it re-instated in the future. Merandy called the new zoning “the responsible thing to do” and the board’s numerous public meetings and individual sessions held by Supervisor Shea with residents “the way to go.”
Throughout the evening, the Democrats also pointed to the unwillingness of the other two Republican candidates to participate in the exchange of views. Speaking about reasons to vote for her, Scuccimarra said she was willing to cross lines to get things done. “I’m here, aren’t I?“ she said, spreading her arms to enthusiastic applause.
Photos by M. Turton and M. Mell