Opinion: The Town of Cold Spring

Perhaps one government would be better

By Kevin E. Foley

Before we get into another season of village elections, let’s pause and ask how much local government we really need. What if we had one government for the not quite 10,000 citizens within Philipstown’s borders? Beacon, for handy comparison, has one government for its 15,000 citizens.

To ask the question another way: How might we reshape our local taxpayer- supported resources so they work better at improving and protecting the quality of life for all residents of Philipstown? Do we really need two village governments (Cold Spring and Nelsonville) in addition to a town government?

What might happen if we eliminated the village governments? Even as we adapt and use technology to learn, shop, and communicate, we nevertheless cling to old ways of governing. Perhaps the reasons have more to do with sentimentality and insecurity than any real conviction that what worked in the 19th century still works well in the 21st.

Two premises

The one-government idea rests on two understandings. First, most of the governmental factors that affect our quality of life originate in the capitals of Carmel, Albany and Washington D.C. The factors come, for example, in the form of laws that govern the handling of development projects; funding for transportation needs, street repair or disaster relief; mandates on how local government operates; or budget decisions on the level of services for senior citizens or other needs.

Second, the biggest task of local government is getting the paperwork right. This means organizing proposed projects so they are better understood at the outset; carefully reading the voluminous communication from other levels of government; and keeping elected and appointed officials up to date with changes so they can set priorities and respond to opportunities created by new or revised laws, regulations and budgets.

Streamlining the context and methodology for getting the paperwork right could, among other things, open opportunities for economic development, help identify funding sources, and resolve the challenges of public and private projects more quickly and effectively.

Conservative and liberal

Speaking through empowered representatives with a strong, unified and informed voice to Carmel, Albany and Washington D.C. and holding those representatives accountable for responding to their constituents would work better than the current wheel spinning and wishful thinking that too often passes for local inter-governmental relations these days.

The only jobs lost under this scheme are elected ones. Cold Spring and Nelsonville support eight positions. We might eliminate six of these and allocate the remaining two to increase the size of the town board from five to seven members with the goal of representing a broader diversity of views and political affiliations.

All the civil servants would stay to provide the actual services, but they would work in a single organization delivering those services in a more productive way. This efficiency is less about saving money and more about creating impact and greater economies of scale for the taxes we pay. It marries a conservative idea of less government with a liberal notion that government can solve problems and promote the general welfare.

One court, one highway, one building department

Suppose we had one consolidated court to dispose of all judicial matters. Do we really need a system that says you report to a different court depending on whether you were stopped for speeding in Nelsonville, Cold Spring, or North Highlands? This idea has seen years of discussion.

Suppose we had one highway department, a combination of Cold Spring’s and Philipstown’s, to maintain and clear roads on all our town (and village) streets in close coordination with the county and state departments. And while we’re at it, let’s drop the idea of electing a town highway superintendent and instead have the new town board hire the best available person after a public job search.

And how about one building department for getting information, requesting inspection, filing plans and other issues involving our homes and businesses in Philipstown? This idea was actually discussed last year and went nowhere even though as a practical matter it would assist residents and entrepreneurs by having a better-staffed and more efficient office for the entire citizenry.

From three clerks, a town manager

Suppose we had one appointed clerk’s office instead of the current three — one of which, the town clerk, is elected. Do we really need to elect the town clerk? Think about having one combined administrative office headed by a full-time, experienced town manager responsible for keeping government services on track, briefing the town board for its deliberations, carrying out the board’s decisions, coordinating the work of appointed committees, providing timely and transparent public information on a new up-to-date website and keeping a sharp lookout for funding opportunities on the county, state and federal level.

Consolidation is coming

Governor Cuomo and the state legislature have already introduced incentives in the form of taxpayer rebates to encourage local governments to find ways to share services and become more efficient. Our state Assemblywoman, Sandy Galef, has long argued for greater sharing of services and consolidation. In the years ahead this effort will doubtless intensify. Why not get ahead of the curve and show other villages and towns the way forward? We could make history instead of remaining tethered to historical models that no longer respond adequately to contemporary challenges.

Doubtless there are flaws in this thinking. People will make legal, political, historic and other objections. But, really, if you object to a unified government, one that would preserve and protect the best of what we have now, then you have the burden of explaining why we should maintain the current village/town system, which is often so slow and seemingly unable to respond to issues in a timely or strategic manner.

23 thoughts on “Opinion: The Town of Cold Spring

  1. Makes sense. First step should be an assessment for consolidation of duplicative services.Change will be alarming to many residents. It is time for social and economic attitudes dating back a hundred years between villages, hamlets and town residents to end. As a first step– Lets get a cost analyses for a phased in consolidation of services.
    Lets hear from others in town. The Paper is an excellent forum for constructive discussion. What’s the pros and cons?

  2. What a creative and excellent idea. My hope is this will stop the contentious attacks emulating a failed congress split between Democrats and right wing conservative Republicans. We need to unify and stop the ugly division and remember all elected officials are there to work together to protect and care for all the residents of Philipstown. We have witnessed an ugly division heightened by some of Mr Cunningham’s columns in the PCNR that served only to divide and create rancor. Why is this necessary? It’s time for unity, compassionate listening and a common goal to govern without the political ugliness we have seen this year. How Butterfield was handled leaves a bad taste as it became partisan and appeared too often to serve personal self interest.

  3. I think someone should do a study and a cost analysis of all of the “studies” that have been performed in and around the village. Now that would be interesting!

  4. Sorry. No.

    See Locke and see Montesquieu.

    The American constitutional system, which largely followed the philosophies of Locke and Montesquieu,, has long endured. The first French Republic which did not, rapidly ended in dictatorship and disaster..

    Fewer but larger governmental bodies, or more concentrated, or less “restrained”, or more “streamlined”, or move “effective” governments, are not compatible with freedom or equality or justice or security. Quite the opposite is the case.

    See Albany and see Washington DC. Or Moscow. Or Beijing.

    Or pick up just about any account of any of the better known tyrannies of the ancient or of the modern world.

  5. Excellent article with many good points. However, you left out one of the biggest money savers of all that is really a no brainer — get rid of the totally inefficient and unnecessary Cold Spring Police Department. There is absolutely no reason to have this agency that sucks up about half the Village budget every year. The Town of Philipstown, in which Cold Spring resides, does not have its own PD. Like neighboring Putnam Valley, the very capable and effective Sheriff’s Department provides all necessary police services as does the State Police. Why is it necessary for the tiny Village of Cold Spring to have and pay for not one, not two but three separate police agencies?

    • Cold Spring’s police consume about a quarter of the portion of the Village budget covered by property taxes (that is, excluding water and sewer, invoiced and paid for according usage), not half (roughly $400,000 annually). But that’s still a lot of money, and I agree with Patty that this is money not well spent.

      Cold Spring residents pay much higher taxes than residents of Nelsonville, with almost all of the difference accounted for by the expense of the Cold Spring police. This creates an insurmountable obstacle to consolidation, since the residents of Nelsonville (and Philipstown) would have to agree to higher taxes under any consolidation scheme, to pay for those Cold Spring police — even if overall the consolidation saved money.

      Merging the villages of Cold Spring and Nelsonville makes much more sense than consolidating both of them into the Town. This is because these are basically urban communities, with small-scale urban infrastructures, transportation hubs, and a special sense of “place.” Philipstown is primarily a suburban/rural community, where most people draw their water from wells and contract for their own garbage collection.

      • Even if the Cold Spring PD accounts for a quarter of the budget rather than half, it is still a substantial chunk of change that is unnecessarily spent by the taxpayers. What you are not acknowledging is the point that I’ve made many times in my comments and that is Cold Spring is ALREADY paying for the Sheriff and the State Police who regularly patrol the Village area on Route 301, Rte. 9 and Rte. 9D. It is not going to cost extra if you get rid of the CSPD. You guys are already paying for these services but because you have your “own” PD the Sheriff and State police don’t patrol as much as they would if you didn’t.

        Just like Put Valley, the Town of Philipstown (not including Cold Spring) does not have its own PD and I don’t think it ever did. The rest of your Town is apparently very happy not to have to pay for that extra service and I never hear complaints about the SD or the State police coming from those residents.

        To put things in perspective: up till 1997 or so, Putnam Valley did have its own PD and it cost us a bundle, over a million bucks a year plus a whole lot more because of all the law suits they were generating that we had to defend. Our former PD had become world famous for things like handcuffing pregnant women, stopping people of color on the Taconic, etc etc. It was not a pleasant situation and eventually, with a lot of hard work and strife, we did manage to get rid of the PVPD and have lived happily ever after with the Sheriff and State cops protecting us.

        It is up to the people of Cold Spring whether or not they want to keep paying for unnecessary police protection. But it is ridiculous to claim that CS and Nelsonville are so different from the rest of us that they need to have special services. Philipstown and Put Valley should be working together to demand even MORE services from Carmel. For too long we have been treated like the forgotten step children of the County and referred to as The Wild West by some.

        Setting up artificial distinctions and differences that are meaningless is not helpful to the taxpayers who are getting little enough for their hard earned money.

        • Hello Patty, I would like to thank you for sharing what is probably an incomplete summary list of “things not to do” if you don’t want your local police department to be defunded and disbanded.

          Given widening concerns over aberrancies in police behavior across the land over the past few years, I wonder if other taxpayers in other communities may have similar sorts of lists, and stories about the consequences. They might make for interesting discussion and consideration were they made public.

          Looks like Putnam Valley took appropriate action way ahead of the curve, or ahead of its time, if I may use this phraseology.

          On the other hand, I don’t think I can quite agree with the first sentence in your post, unless “unnecessarily spent by the taxpayers” is changed to “unfairly almost entirely expensed to, and paid for by village property taxpayers.”

          Last, but not least, I would like to thank The Paper/Philipstown.info for providing this forum. This is a valuable resource and I am confident most in the community agree with me here.

          • Mr. Haggerty is wrong to say that the cost of the Cold Spring Police Department is “unfairly almost entirely expensed to, and paid for by village property taxpayers.” The Cold Spring Village Board votes year after year to budget these expenditures; it is not coerced. Nelsonville and Philipstown voters have nothing to say about it, so why should they be expected to reimburse the village? How can this be called “unfair”?

            While I agree that the Cold Spring Police Department is redundant, it is the village’s business and responsibility, no one else’s.

  6. Power, money and distrust of others controlling our piece of the pie is why any substantial consolidation will not happen.

  7. Judging from Patty Villanova’s response, my comment on the Cold Spring police may not have been clear. I agree with her that the $400,000 annual expense for Village police is excessive and redundant, given the services the village already receives from the county. I think a study might be helpful to determine why so many Cold Springers think otherwise. For example, villagers might rely on the police for some assisted living emergencies (when an older person falls and the response required seems to be less than a call for an ambulance), or that parents might fear a relatively unsympathetic response from the Sheriff’s office if their child were involved in a drug use complaint. I have high regard for the professionalism of the County police, and think such fears are misplaced, but it is important to understand them — whatever they are.

    I was also not clear about why tax payers outside of Cold Spring would not benefit from consolidation if Cold Spring insists on continuing with its own police force. I concede, first, that there would likely be net financial benefits, overall, from any consolidation, whether of the three governments or of just the villages. That does not mean that every single tax payer, or even every one of the jurisdictions, would benefit, even if the overall (consolidated) community saves. This is because the $400,000 burden of Cold Spring expenses for police (assuming, now, that there is no change) would be shared with tax payers in Nelsonville and Philipstown, wiping out the benefit of their sharing some administrative cost savings.

    When considering consolidation it is vital that specific interests of the taxpayers be considered, because that will determine what is feasible politically, and it will also clarify the tradeoffs. The classic example is the startling (and long-lived) inequity in school district property taxes between Garrison and Haldane. Garrison property owners pay about $19 per thousand dollars of assessed value, while Haldane district property owners pay about $35 per thousand dollars. This is mostly because Haldane covers the expense of high school, which is the most expensive part of education, while Garrison does not. Consolidation of the two districts might result in some administrative savings (say, half a million dollars or so), but clearly not enough that the taxes of Garrison school district residents wouldn’t go up. Any effort to consolidate would make this plain to the voters, and as a result consolidation of the school districts is extremely unlikely unless the state forced the issue.

    Finally, I think it is reasonable to consider the two villages, Cold Spring and Nelsonville, as having unique and shared interests as urban communities distinct from the suburban/rural interests of Philipstown. Look at water supply, the storm water and sewer system (including the opportunity for Nelsonville residents to finally hook up with the 1972 Waste Water treatment plant), snow removal, garbage collection, sidewalk and street maintenance, zoning, and on and on, and the special advantages of a village consolidation should be clear.

  8. There are many opportunities for collaboration, cooperation and consolidation with our communities and I include in that all of Put Valley and all of Philipstown. Michael brought up one of the biggest items and that relates to the school districts which of course generate most of our property taxes.

    I don’t know if Michael remembers or took part in any of the many debates that took place in our towns regarding construction of a regional high school prior to Putnam Valley building its own tax busting, totally unnecessary white elephant which today proudly stands on Peekskill Hollow Rd. in defiance of all common sense and economic feasibility.

    It was a long drawn out saga and for a time there was talk of consolidation such that the school districts could cooperate and construct their own high school as a shared project. For many reasons that idea was rejected and we ended up with a high school that we can barely afford with a steadily dwindling population of students that was predicted decades ago.

    I wonder if there is any way for the Garrison/ Philipstown residents to work with the PV school district to share our faciliies or tuition in their students so as to avoid construction costs of their own.

    As Ralph Falloon pointed out- power, money and mistrust are often more powerful forces than plain common sense.

    • I think even more fundamental to preventing consolidation than abstractions like “power, money and mistrust” or even “stupidity” is the misalignment of interests that cannot be democratically resolved. Garrison School District taxpayers are never going to vote to merge their district with Haldane because there is no reasonable consolidation scenario where their taxes won’t go up — a lot. Nelsonville taxpayers would never agree to consolidate with Cold Spring as long as they would have to shoulder a share of the police costs.

      The fruits of consolidation are out of reach because we put local-rule democracy before principles of government efficiency and tax equity. The only realistic path that I can see to a school district consolidation is if New York State mandated that any free school district (i.e., one without a high school) under, say, 500 students be merged with an adjacent district that has a high school. The only realistic path to a Village consolidation would be for Cold Spring taxpayers to first bring their taxes down to the level of Nelsonville’s by eliminating (or sharply reducing) Cold Spring’s redundant police force.

  9. While people think consolidation is always the answer, loss of services is really the answer. Can anyone think of any services that improved with larger government consolidation and control or when costs decreased? Me either.

    Those of you that walk home from the train after a show or game or working late, are you going to feel safer with a consolidated force that will not have dedicated patrol in Village? Look at other parts of Putnam County and judge. Dedicated patrols cost more than the present police.

    Many people will jump on the consolidation bandwagon. But think why you have lived here your entire life or why you moved here: Small-town feel and quality of life. That comes from local control. When you give that up, you give up what you have.

    Village of Cold Spring tax bills are not outrageous for the services received. I will pay a few extra dollars to not be like …. take your pick in the area, there are many choices.

    • Amen to that, brother. As you cede local control, so you cede all control. Cold Spring is a rare, special place. Let’s not allow it to be lost on our watch.

  10. Perhaps trying out small changes in Village police schedules would help determine if people in the community would really lose a sense of security by reducing coverage. Police staffing normally takes into consideration the number of calls. If the number of calls on some shifts is very low, why not consider letting the County police provide coverage for those shifts? The Village would save money and get a better idea of what impact such changes have on community safety.

    Fran Murphy declared during the last election that there can be no sacred cows. Given the importance of the question of Village police services to the larger issue of consolidation and controlling property taxes, do we really want to just not talk about it?

  11. Whatever happens vis a vis consolidation or changes in public services will ultimately be decided by the residents of Cold Spring; in New York we still have “home rule.” However, every so often it seems like the natives are getting restless and you see articles and commentary that reflect the idea that maybe all those services aren’t quite so affordable for the taxpayers.

    It’s good to know that there are viable options out there that have been tried and are being used by neighboring communities. It seems to me that right now the Village has a lot of economic challenges ahead of it that amount to millions of dollars in capital improvements that are going to need to be done. When those bills start coming in, the people will have to decide what they can afford.

  12. Certainly a thought provoking Op-Ed and resulting discussion. I would caution on full-blown consolidation vs. looking at targeted areas for coordination and streamlining where “everyone wins.” Full-blown consolidation can be a zero sum game and would mean that there will always be a group of residents and taxpayers that end up with one or both of reduced services or higher taxes. To say nothing of the huge differences and resulting needs of residents and taxpayers in greater Philipstown vs. the two villages.

    I’d go a step further and also say that the two villages are also sufficiently different and with different needs (beyond just the cost of police force) and that you’d have to look very carefully at what Cold Spring or Nelsonville residents would “give up” if the two were merged.

    • Why frame the response to the issue of consolidation in such a way that there are potential costs of infinite value (“small-town feel,” ceding “local” control), but that any benefits are likely to be phony because government always blows it, that make any discussion moot? I suggest that those potential costs are, on examination, highly debatable, and the benefits real.

      Would combining Cold Spring and Nelsonville really destroy the local control now enjoyed by residents? Please think carefully about this, and try to think about the specific services provided by local government to residents. Think what combining the property tax revenue of the two village’s could do for strengthening the united community.

      The elephant in the room is the risk of doing nothing, of business as usual. Cold Spring will pay off the $3 million debt on its 1997 Water Filtration plant in 2017. For the last couple of years the village has been funding infrastructure projects with bond anticipation notes that leverage the credit the Village will have once that 1997 note is paid off. The Main Street water main relining and the waste water treatment plant upgrade have been paid for by these BANs, as they are known. The problem is that, with that money spent (or the credit used up) the village is facing many, many millions of dollars more in infrastructure needs — for reservoir dam repairs, disintegrating sewer pipes that fill with rain water and overflow into the Hudson, for a water distribution system that would be inadequate to douse a fire at Haldane, for a desperately needed new firehouse, and on and on. For its part Nelsonville will have to address the fact that residents will need to be hooked up, at some point, to the wastewater treatment plant built in 1972 to serve them, as well as Cold Spring. Is it responsible to hide from the hard question of consolidation, given the risks?

      • Hi Michael – I think this reply was meant for one of the posts above? I’m not appealing to small-town feel, giving up control or government always screwing things up as reasons not to do this. I think this is a great topic and a great discussion. For the purposes of the discussion, I’m just pointing out reasons why full consolidation may be a tough hill to climb.

        I think proponents of the “Town of PhilpSpringVille” or the “Village of Nelson Spring” need to recognize that more often than not, voters are always going to vote their own self interests — as appealing as the benefits for the “greater good” may be. Some people just can’t absorb an increase to their property taxes without forcing them to move out of this area, and that needs to be recognized.

        Take the elephant in the room examples you site: all are very important, well thought out and certainly need to be addressed. But they are 99 percent Cold Spring village issues and the result of action (or inaction) on the part of Cold Spring’s government. And you are proposing that “combining the property tax revenues of the two villages” as the solution for addressing these big issues. (Full disclosure: I pay property tax in both villages, so have no dog in the hunt one way or another, so to speak.)

        I’d argue that a Nelsonville taxpayer might look at that proposal as spreading the costs of Cold Spring village problems to Nelsonville taxpayers. Would Nelsonville taxpayers willingly vote for full consolidation on this basis?

        And beyond the perception of providing a “bail out” to Cold Spring at the expense of Nelsonville, they might also raise concerns on what a village level consolidation mean in terms of which zoning codes and processes would apply in a combined village? Some might also be very skeptical about the myriad committees/boards/commissions and requirements of Cold Spring (many of which all make perfect sense for Cold Spring given the waterfront, main street, commercial district, historic district, big developments etc.). Would these requirements, plus the GreenPlan zoning update be applicable to Nelsonville as well? The answer to that question may impact some property owners’ willingness to enter into a full-blown consolidation.

        Not saying this is a bad discussion or that you don’t raise very important issues that need to be addressed (I wish more people were as well informed and articulate on these issues as you are!), but I think any consolidation proponents need to recognize that we have three distinct municipal entities that exist today and regardless of what makes sense for the greater good it is the residents of these three entities that would need to weigh in on a consolidation before it could happen. Most people are not going to vote against their own interests, regardless of the nobility of the cause.

        Better to start with coordination and streamlining services and departments where there is little downside for anyone and a lot of upside. Build the case with action and results, rather than overstepping too soon.

        Said differently: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

        • That voters will and should vote for their best interests is undisputed. Any project as ambitious as consolidating the Villages will take time, above all to allow those interests to be carefully considered and debated.

          I have tried to show that Cold Spring’s decision to have its own police force makes consolidation of the two villages very unlikely. The first bite of the elephant, to use your metaphor, must be to make it possible to talk about Cold Springers relying solely on the same police coverage now provided to Nelsonville and the rest of Philipstown.

          Residents of Nelsonville are facing real problems with their old septic systems, and some have begun to yearn to hook up to the wastewater treatment plant that was built in 1972 with Federal money to serve both villages. At the point where Cold Spring’s property taxes fall more in line with Nelsonville’s (that is, when redundant policing has been addressed), Nelsonville residents would have the opportunity to both reduce taxes and improve services, through a consolidation with their neighbor. Above all, they would finally have a shot at getting a real sewer system (which would significantly boost property values).

          What does Cold Spring have to gain from the consolidation? It would boost its gross property tax revenue by several hundred thousand dollars annually, while taking on only a portion of Nelsonville’s current costs. For example, Cold Spring could certainly collect Nelsonville’s garbage using the Cold Spring Highway Department for far less than Nelsonville pays an outside contractor; the same holds for snow removal and road maintenance.

          The result of consolidation under these circumstances would be significantly lower property taxes in the combined village, for all residents. The two villages’ greatest strength is their economically diverse populations. This – not a redundant police force – is what gives the community its unique character. If the expensive challenge of infrastructure repair drives lower income residents away, the battle will be lost.

  13. So happy that the wise and, I think, often under-appreciated Michael Armstrong mentioned the septic systems in Nelsonville. While some in this thread have asked if Nelsonville residents want to take on Cold Spring’s burdens, I am wondering how much it would cost to being modern-day septic program to a village that currently relies, at least in part, on cesspools — and how the people of Cold Spring would feel about paying for that.

    • I know of no engineering studies that estimate the cost for a Nelsonville hook up to the Cold Spring wastewater treatment plant. (One is needed.) Clearly, Cold Spring residents are not likely to agree to cover the multi-million dollar expense.

      Consider that Cold Spring, in a consolidation, would gain Nelsonville’s property tax revenues, but that it would cost Cold Spring significantly less to provide services to Nelsonville than Nelsonville spends today. The difference represents savings that could effectively be applied to pay off a 20-year bond that would cover at least a portion of the cost for new sewers. Additional money may come from grants (perhaps to a consolidated Cold Spring/Nelsonville sewer district), and any consolidation agreement could be conditional on those grants being approved. The State is extremely interested in consolidating municipalities right now, and a study — paid for by New York State — could establish the cost of the sewers and estimate the actual consolidation savings that would pay for them.

      In the long run, the sewer debt would be paid down, and Cold Springers would share in the ongoing savings from the combined villages.