Broad agreement rather than discord
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
A trio of candidates for two Philipstown Town Board council positions Monday night (Oct . 7) dug into issues of town finances, tourism, and relations with Putnam County, and expressed broad agreement on the issues.
In a session characterized by small-town amiability rather than partisan rancor, Republican and Conservative Parties candidate Lee Erickson joined Democratic Party candidates Mike Leonard and John Van Tassel, an incumbent member of the Town Board, at a forum hosted by Philipstown.info and moderated by publisher Gordon Stewart.
Another Conservative Party candidate, Cathy Sapeta, did not participate in the event, held at Haldane School. The four hopefuls are vying for two council slots in the Nov. 5 general election. The Town Board consists of the supervisor and four councilors (councilmen/councilwomen).
The event also featured questions for Supervisor Richard Shea, running unopposed for a third, two-year term.
During an hour-long discussion Monday, the biggest point of divergence surfaced when Erickson urged that he be elected because he would bring a different perspective to a board now consisting of Democrats. His opponents responded that in Philipstown party politics don’t matter and that they are willing to keep an open mind and oppose or support others’ views, regardless of party.
The trio began and finished their portion of the program by giving their reasons for running.
Erickson, who operates a woodworking business and campaigned unsuccessfully for supervisor in 2011, said he had gotten involved in local affairs in 2009, over the rezoning issue. “I imbedded myself in the process in order to get my property rights. I’ve stayed involved. I think I can make a difference, with an individual voice. If you’re not thinking of different things or looking at things from that different perspective, then not a lot of things can get moved forward,” he said. The present Town Board “sometimes is like an echo chamber,” with five Democrats, he said. “I think I can be that voice of reason and give that different perspective.”
Leonard, who chairs the Philipstown Planning Board, cited his long experience with it and on the Conservation Board and assessment review board (which not long ago got a 7 percent tax reduction in property taxes for Philipstown residents in the Lakeland school district). All that, plus his professional background in management, and business, he said “gives me a great foundation” for being on the Town Board. “I feel I could really do a lot of good there … really do a good job for you,” he told the audience.
Van Tassel, a coach of youth teams, long-time member and leader of the North Highlands Fire Department and emergency services, building trades businessman, and councilor for four years, referred to his civic involvement and the exposure to diverse views it has brought.
“I use this wide base to make decisions” as an elected official, and “I’m in the street every day,” he said. “My track record is proven and speaks for itself. I’m also not afraid to make the unpopular statement or vote. I have been the voice of opposition. I think party politics don’t play a role once you’re elected to the Town Board. I’m honored to have served the town since 2010 and I’d love to have the privilege of serving it for another four years. I will continue to protect the natural beauty of Philipstown while maintaining its affordability and continue to improve on the town’s preparedness.”
Tax cap and budget issues
Much of the discussion covered issues of finances and providing services without exceeding the cap set by New York State – a limit the candidates said is about 2 percent. (Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell last week gave it as 1.66 percent, the rate of inflation.)
Leonard said meeting the tax cap “is very challenging and daunting for the town to deal with because another area that is not looked at a lot of times is the unfunded state mandates.” To cope, “you have to take a look at your budget. You have to look line by line” and scrutinize each bill and ask if the expenditure is necessary to the town, as well as pursue state and federal aid, he said. “It’s difficult. You need other stable resources” and revenue options beyond the usual streams. The tax cap itself “is a very important milestone to hold onto but it gets tougher every year,” Leonard said. “We don’t want to cut certain services.”
Van Tassel noted that “we’ve managed to keep the budget under the 2 percent cap, with a lot of struggling. There’s been some controversy, especially for me with the emergency services. I’ve encouraged people [to realize] that it’s a time of needs, and not wants. It’s not always easy. But I think we’ve worked together, the town has listened, the board has listened,” Van Tassel said. “The 2 percent cap is certainly very difficult. There may not be a good end to this thing.”
“I do believe the Town Board and Supervisor Shea have done a great job in keeping with the 2 percent cap,” Erickson concurred. However, he continued, “if we don’t get mandate relief, I don’t see how we can maintain the 2 percent cap without growth somewhere, without revenues from the mortgage rebate, without some growth on the limited business property we have left in town. It’ll be difficult going forward. I think we have to do more with less somehow.”
He proposed increased efforts to work with Putnam County to bring appropriate businesses – “nothing that’s smokestacks and chimneys” but perhaps computer-technology firms – to Philipstown. “If we can get some revenue from that, it’ll help offset this 2 percent cap.”
Leonard said “we’ve had some decent commercial development in our town” in recent years. Business owners coming before the Planning Board see that “we try as much as we can to move the process along. If we just delay, delay, businesses will go somewhere else.”
Erickson referred to consolidation as a potential cost-cutter. “Whether it be the courts, the village and the town merging at some point – I know that’s an ugly subject sometimes with the village – there are certain things we might have to consolidate, whether it’s fire departments, equipment, and manpower; highway departments,” or other facilities, he said. “There’s things we’ve really got to take a hard look at to cut the numbers down.”
Leonard agreed with Erickson that consolidation should be considered. “It isn’t an easy issue,” given the number of agencies and jurisdictions, but “I think there’s been some progress made,” he said.
“There could be a time when we say we need to do this [consolidate] or we’re going to cut services,” Van Tassel put in. He recalled that the town government had looked at consolidation of emergency services (which set off a furor in 2011). He said fire departments could benefit from bulk purchasing “and I think there is more cooperation lately, working toward that type of solution.” Likewise, “in the future, maybe we’ll be able to consolidate the courts and save money there.”
At present, there’s no space for a court large enough to replace the separate Philipstown, Cold Spring, and Nelsonville justice courts, he said. Furthermore, he said, “I’d love to approach a consolidation of highway services. These are all great possibilities for money saving.”
Rather than eliminate services outright, the candidates all proposed careful budget-setting and frugality.
“There’s always a way to pinch some pennies,” Van Tassel said. “We’ve been cutting, year after year. It’s very hard. But we’ve been doing it. We don’t want to cut services.”
“I agree with that. It would be an across-the-board cut for me,” Erickson said. “It has to be a share-the-pain [mentality].”
Leonard concurred and reiterated his call for ongoing economizing as well as maintenance of a reserve and look toward income from varied sources. “You don’t want to have to be, in your head, saying ‘if I have an issue, what am I going to cut?’”
Van Tassel mentioned Putnam County’s failure to return to Philipstown a portion of the sales tax collected in town. All three candidates said the county must equitably share sales tax revenue – as most New York counties do.
“If we could get a portion of the sales tax that goes to Putnam County, it would go a long way to helping us subsidize our budget here in Philipstown,” Van Tassel said. He said the town gets some good services from the county, such as programs of the sheriff’s department and emergency services, but “I think there’s definitely a need for more sharing. I’m not afraid of a fight. We can get more aggressive” if necessary on the issue, he said.
“We send a lot of money there” to county government. “What do we get back?” Leonard asked. “If challenged” over the sales tax issue and forced to share the income, county officials, “will find a way to work with what they have, as we have done” in operating efficiently, he said. Should the county persist in its refusal, Philipstown must be prepared to appeal to state authorities, he said.
Better, though, he added, “to resolve this in our county ourselves.” Leonard spoke of attending county-wide Chamber of Commerce meetings and other events to build bridges. “I think we’ve had some very encouraging changes” so far, as in recent economic development initiatives, he said, recommending that Philipstown strive to demonstrate willingness to be a partner. “We don’t want to be seen as that frontier out west.”
“We have to have our fair share” of county resources, Erickson said. “It’s not a matter of try to get it. It’s imperative. We have to have it. If we’re not getting our fair share” of county money, “I’ll find out,” learn “who is responsible” and report back, he promised. “I’ll be the guy over there kicking down the door and finding out why.” Nonetheless, he cautioned that without mandate relief, the county might share sales tax but raise county property taxes to cover the gap.
All three candidates urged stronger ties with Carmel, the county seat.
Toward that end, two – Van Tassel and Erickson – mentioned efforts involving District 1 Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra.
“I have a good relationship with Barbara Scuccimarra, our county legislator. I enjoy working with her and I think there is some possibility to get some more services to this side of the county,” Van Tassel said. While not afraid of confrontation, added that “I have faith in Barbara Scuccimarra’s ability as our legislator to go there and to bring some more funds here. I’d like to give her the ability to bring some more funds here. If it requires us, the Town Board, to go and speak, absolutely.”
Erickson referred to relationships he has built. “I know who to speak to if there’s a question to be asked, whether it’s our County Executive MaryEllen Odell, or Barbara, or a number of people over there. So I would look forward to working hard for everybody here in Philipstown to getting our fair share, too.”
The three also backed efforts to boost tourism.
“I think there are things we can do, very positively, as a town” and not just at the village level, Leonard said. “We have to have the ability for people to get around,” without cars, when visiting or living in Philipstown. “Transportation is a big issue not just for tourism but for our own people. But I believe that’s part of the solution to making us more attractive.”
He came to Putnam County in 1975 and eventually ended up in Philipstown because he found it so appealing, he said. “I really admire the historic character of the village [Cold Spring],” he said. “A lot of places have given that up. “I’d love to see us keep it” because “you won’t be able to get it back” once it’s gone.
“We have one of the most beautiful areas of the Hudson Valley,” Erickson said. “We have to work to promote that harder.” He proposed more town government interaction with Main Street businesses, the county, and village government. “I don’t know what’s happening in the village with the waterfront development,” he said. “If the village gets the project moving down there, that would help to get people to stop here. If you see things happening – if they’re opening a brewery here, like they did down in Peekskill – it’s an attraction.”
Van Tassel foresaw potential in the proposed Hudson River Fjord Trail between Cold Spring and Beacon. “The fjord trail will certainly improve accessibility,” he said, suggesting it might be good to have a hotel to better accommodate overnight stays, too. “We’ll do whatever we can to assist the village” of Cold Spring, he said. “I think it is irreplaceable. It’s one of a kind. And obviously it’s the key to our tourism in the town of Philipstown.”
Photos by M. Turton
Video by Gregory Gunder