Debate over taxes, infrastructure and public comment
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
A standing-room-only crowd filled the Kent firehouse on Oct. 18 to question Putnam County and state Assembly District 95 candidates during a three-hour League of Women Voters forum. The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 6.
Republican MaryEllen Odell, the incumbent Putnam County executive, and her challenger, Democrat Maureen Fleming, clashed over the county’s retention of sales tax income as well as over restriction of public comments at legislative meetings. But they agreed on the need to expand water and sewer lines, a subject of potential interest in Nelsonville, whose Village Board has begun discussing installing a sewer to replace private disposal pits and septic systems.
Odell became county executive in 2011 in a special election to complete the term of Vincent Leibell, who went to prison instead of Carmel after being caught in tax evasion shortly after winning the election. Odell was re-elected in 2014. At the forum, she urged voters to keep her in office “for the next, last four years.” By law, county executives are limited to two, regular four-year terms. “We do things big, we do them bold” and are “good in solving problems,” she asserted.
Fleming, Kent’s supervisor since 2014, said its board consists of four Republicans plus herself, but that “we get things done,” correctly and cooperatively, “because it’s not about the Democrats or the Republicans.” She pledged to bring the same spirit to county government.
(The candidates have battled through press releases over the pending senior center in Cold Spring and over their records on taxes and debt.)
Unlike most counties in New York state, Putnam does not return a portion of sales tax to the municipalities where it is collected, a sore point in Philipstown, whose local governments must deal with the costs of burgeoning tourism. Sales tax revenue accounts for $60.5 million, or about 38 percent, of Odell’s proposed $159.8 million 2019 budget, compared to $43.4 million (27 percent) collected through property taxes, $26.9 million (17 percent) from income generated by county departments; and $29 million (18 percent) in state and federal reimbursements.
Sharing sales tax revenue “is not even possible for discussion,” Odell argued. “We’d have to quadruple property tax bills. We could never waive sales tax.”
Fleming said the county should consider sharing it. “If we cut some of the fat out of the budget, if we spend more wisely,” perhaps Putnam can “give back to the towns and share some sales tax revenue,” she said.
The county Legislature restricts public remarks to the end of its meetings — after legislators have voted on policy measures. It also discourages or bans questions and forbids comments not involving items on the agenda. When asked, Odell said she supported the limits.
“A majority of the work is done in committee meetings,” she explained. “That’s where the community and stakeholders have an opportunity to share ideas. To have a back-and-forth at a meeting — we’ve never seen it be successful. All you’re doing is creating a discussion that doesn’t have anything to do with the work that night.”
Odell singled out a forum attendee, Richard Othmer, a former county legislator who is now the Kent highway superintendent, recalling a 2013 meeting when the Legislature was expected to approve her plan to place signs with advertising on the hike-bike path in eastern Putnam. Othmer, who chaired the Legislature, allowed public comment before the vote.
“It became an incredible blow-up,” Odell said. “And not a lot gets done” under those conditions. (At the 2013 meeting, after residents denounced the proposal and legislators expressed misgivings about Odell’s approach, the Legislature voted 8-1 to postpone action and the proposal later died.)
Fleming said as county executive she “would encourage the Legislature to open all meetings to public comment” and not limit them to topics on the agenda. Kent’s Town Board permits comments at meetings “so we can hear what residents have to say, what their concerns are, [things] important for us to hear. We’ve never had a problem,” she said.
Reached on Tuesday (Oct. 23), Othmer said that “I’d rather stay quiet” in the latest go-round.
Fleming criticized Odell for what she said were questionable priorities. Putnam County “kept some highway department employees working on other projects while our roads could have been repaired,” she said. She said she would provide a well-crafted infrastructure plan. “Many of our roads are failing,” she said, and the county needs more sewer and water lines.
Odell replied that Putnam has an infrastructure plan. Like Fleming, she supported the expansion of water and sewer services, which, she said, are “extremely critical” and can encourage development along busy roads such as Route 6 in Mahopac. “You look at storage units, dry cleaners, nail salons” on Route 6, Odell said. “You don’t see anything that brings any value to the community or to the tax base. Sewers in that corridor would be helpful.”
Nancy Montgomery, a Democrat who serves on the Philipstown Town Board, hopes to unseat incumbent Republican Barbara Scuccimarra in representing District 1 on the county Legislature. The district covers Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley. Scuccimarra was elected to her first three-year term in 2012.
In response to a question from an audience member, the candidates both said they do not think water supplies in the county are overregulated. Putnam is in the watershed that supplies New York City and some local communities; the county also contains many acres of parkland where lakes and ponds are controlled by the state.
“We do have a lot of restrictions, but we drink the water as well,” Scuccimarra said. She cited the importance of protecting water from threats, including faulty septics and pesticides applied to lawns. “There’s a lot we can do,” she said.
“We don’t regulate our water enough,” Montgomery said. Advising continued vigilance, she pointed out that in 2017 the county itself applied herbicides near a reservoir in the Cold Spring water system.
Scuccimarra said that herbicide application “was stopped immediately” once discovered.
Montgomery said the county fails to coordinate with municipalities in emergencies. After 10 years of overtures to the county government as a Town Board member, she said, “I’ve found there’s absolutely no communication in regard to preparation for storms. You can’t manage a storm in the Hudson Highlands from an office in Carmel.” She promised that one of her priorities as county legislator would be better emergency management.
Scuccimarra replied that during the March storm, the county opened both an emergency operations center in Carmel and a shelter in Philipstown, though “it wasn’t the one my opponent wanted open.” The county hauled equipment to the Garrison Fire District firehouse instead of using the Philipstown Recreation Center, an established shelter for weather emergencies.
Scuccimarra heralded the senior center being finished at the Butterfield redevelopment in Cold Spring. “I want to bring [other] county services over to this” site, too, and so far at least one county agency wants space there, she said.
Montgomery observed that the Town Board, not the county, set up a senior exercise program and other initiatives. She contended that county officials didn’t have to wait for the Butterfield development to bring more services to Philipstown. “We’ve waited too long,” she said. “We’ve had space available for years in town.”
Experience confronted youth when 78-year-old Sandy Galef, the veteran Democrat who represents the Highlands and other Hudson Valley communities in the state Assembly, faced off against Republican Lawrence Chiulli, a 21-year-old Westchester Community College student who graduated from Croton High School and lives in Cortlandt Manor.
Galef, initially elected to the Assembly in 1992, five years before Chiulli was born, said “the federal government has really done us in” through the Trump administration’s tax changes, which restrict the amount of local and state taxes that can be deducted on itemized federal tax returns to $10,000 annually.
Galef chairs the Assembly’s Real Property Tax Committee, which, she said, is working on responses to the federal action and also to reduce property taxes. Toward that end, “combining some school districts would be very helpful,” she said.
Chiulli replied that “everybody should have lower taxes, but it has to be sustainable.” He expressed fears that residents are leaving the area because of economic strains.
Galef observed that federal, not state law, governs the placement of cell towers. She noted that no one wants a tower nearby, yet everyone, including businesses considering a Hudson Valley base, wants reliable wireless service. “We’re going to have to start saying ‘yes’ to some things,” she said. At the same time, she added, “there are places for cell towers and places not for towers.”
Admitting he was unfamiliar with cell tower issues, Chiulli pledged to bone up and to be approachable on any subject if elected. “I want to break the mystique of public office” and be available “at any time,” he said.
Galef said that she has to collaborate with Republicans as well as fellow Democrats on her Assembly committee and with county, village and town officials from both parties. “We all work together,” she said.
“To say you’ll work with everybody is really nice,” Chiulli said. “What we need is to stay motivated on improving our community.” He said he wanted to “be a trailblazer in that.” He also said he is running for the Assembly because “there’s a lot of hatred right now in politics” and he hopes to “unite us as people,” including the young and old.
Karen Smythe, a Democrat challenging state Sen. Sue Serino, whose district includes the Highlands, attended the forum as an audience member after Serino, a Republican, declined to participate. League of Women Voters rules do not allow “empty chair” debates if one candidate is absent.
In a letter to The Current, Phyllis Hoenig, the vice president of the League of Women Voters of Putnam County, said the organization was “very sorry” that Serino had not attended any of its forums since she first ran for the office in 2014. Hoenig said the league sent out its invitations six weeks in advance but that the senator told the league she had prior commitment. Smythe and Serino debated this fall in forums sponsored by the Poughkeepsie Journal and by the Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Photos by L.S. Armstrong