Taxes rise 1.8 percent; residents urge town to continue cell tower fight
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
Voting 5 to 0, the Philipstown Town Board on Tuesday night (Nov. 20) adopted a 2019 budget of $11.2 million, up about 3 percent from 2018.
Then the focus turned to another complex topic, as a citizen delegation urged the board to continue to oppose a planned Route 9 cell tower, even if it means a trial in federal court.
Taking effect on Jan. 1, the 2019 budget calls for collecting $7,943,621 in taxes, or 1.8 percent more than in 2018. It also anticipates $2,039,798 in revenue from non-tax sources, such as town service charges, and includes $1,260,600 in untapped fund balances.
The final budget hews closely to the draft version reviewed at a public hearing on Nov. 7. Under the adopted budget, as in the draft, fire protection will cost the town $1.9 million, and ambulance services $591,841.
However, in tinkering after Nov. 7, the board boosted the budget by $41,568. It increased the amount for buildings by $32,000 from the original $193,000. Likewise, the final numbers include an additional $1,000 for upkeep of the town’s historic cemeteries, bringing that total to $18,500; and $750 extra for Tina Merando, town clerk-tax collector, making her salary $67,750. Salaries for the Town Board members remained intact at their 2018 levels: $27,000 for Supervisor Richard Shea and $18,000 for each of the four councilors.
Tweaking continued Tuesday. Before voting, the board raised the pay for the town’s drug abuse prevention and resources coordinator to $15,000 — an increase of $5,000 from 2018 and $3,000 more than the 2019 draft had proposed. Shea noted that the position was envisioned as part-time, but that “from what we’ve witnessed in the last year, this has essentially become a full-time position at a very, very part-time salary.”
Councilor Nancy Montgomery said the coordinator, Danielle Pack McCarthy, “is fielding calls every day” and meeting with families, as well as with experts in combating the opioid crisis.
Montgomery said she had talked to three families herself on Tuesday. “It’s an epidemic,” she said. “I was in tears today realizing how hard it’s hit so close to home. I’ll keep fighting” for anti-drug outreach “and when I go across the way, I’ll fight for it there, too.” In January, representing Philipstown, she joins the Putnam County Legislature.
Shea said that a tax increase of 1.8 percent leaves the town “far below” the state’s 2 percent tax-hike cap. Put in dollars and cents, that means “we actually have $109,674 to spare,” he observed. “I feel good about this budget.”
Nonetheless, he pointed to “a bit of a mystery” surrounding Garrison Volunteer Ambulance Corps finances and said the board would not release any of the $242,600 earmarked for the GVAC until questions are answered; the 2019 payment is 21 percent higher than the 2018 amount.
Shea said that attempts to have the town accountant meet with the GVAC accountant had failed. “We just didn’t get clarity on things,” despite pressing for it, he said. “I’m not intimating any malfeasance or anything like that; I’m just saying we need clarity.”
Philipstown officials have been negotiating with Homeland Towers to settle a lawsuit the cell tower company filed over the town’s refusal to grant permits for a 180-foot tower planned for land near Vineyard Road and Route 9.
Residents who live near the site strenuously opposed the tower in public meetings in 2017 and early 2018, stating that in its perch, on a hillside, it would be too intrusive for neighbors.
On Tuesday, they urged the Town Board to hold firm and reject a settlement allowing the tower to be installed in a slightly different spot — downhill, closer to the Magazzino art facility, and more visible to the general public.
One apparent settlement option involves putting a separate cell tower, now planned for a ridge in Nelsonville above the Cold Spring Cemetery, at the town’s Highway Department on Fishkill Road, while also installing the Vineyard-Route 9 tower.
Roger Gorevic, who lives off Vineyard Road, said a balloon test on Sunday showed how objectionable a Vineyard-Route 9 tower would be. “This is going to be an eyesore, one way or the other,” he said. He and other neighbors “would be better off personally if it were down there by Magazzino,” but that is not a good solution, he said. “This needs to be stopped. It’s all about money” for the telecommunications industry, Gorevic contended. “It’s not about necessity.”
If the case proceeds to a trial, Gorevic said the opponents want their lawyer — a cell tower litigation specialist — to represent the town. “And we’ll pay for it,” he promised. “We have no choice.”
He complained that, despite requests from the Town Board, the lawyer supplied by the town’s insurance company has not allowed the residents’ group to join the case as an interested party. Gorevic expressed fears that the town’s insurers will push for a settlement while attempting to avoid a trial, regardless of what town officials or residents want.
The board went into executive session to discuss the litigation, including, apparently, whether to accept a settlement, or risk a trial instead.
“You won’t know our decision tonight,” Shea said, noting that the board also could not comment on the case. He added that the town and Homeland are slated to talk again before Dec. 1, and that any announcement of Town Board intentions would follow that meeting.