Assemblywoman also suggests school district merger
Assembly Member Sandy Galef and Philipstown residents on Saturday (Jan. 23) “Zoomed” in on tourism management, taxing the rich, merging school districts and coping locally in a COVID-19 world.
Galef, a Democrat whose district includes Philipstown, hosted the town hall online as a substitute for the in-person forum she held at the beginning of each legislative session before the pandemic, typically at the Butterfield or Desmond-Fish libraries.
On Jan. 23, attention immediately turned to tourism management — or its lack.
Nat Prentice, a Garrison resident who chaired a committee that has recommended updates to the Philipstown comprehensive plan, described the challenges of trying to deal with “too many people coming to visit and no money.”
He called for coordination between levels of government to address such basic needs as keeping the public restrooms at the visitor’s center on Main Street in Cold Spring open in winter. Prentice, who is vice president of the Cold Spring Chamber of Commerce, said he and a few other volunteers scrub the bathrooms and staff the center.
“Visitor management has got everybody a little stuck” and it shouldn’t just be one jurisdiction’s task to handle it, he said. But he called the situation “an opportunity, not a problem.”
Noting that the state does not fund the upkeep of public restrooms, Galef suggested that Putnam might implement a county-wide approach to helping towns and villages with tourism, although she acknowledged that “nobody has tourism like you do” in Cold Spring. “It’s hard,” she said. “It’s a big problem for you and I understand that.”
The Putnam Legislature last year eliminated a $7,500 stipend it had been providing Cold Spring for trash collection. It also does not share sales tax revenue with its towns or villages, an ongoing source of friction. “The county should be sharing sales tax” with Cold Spring, Galef said. “You bring in all the sales tax. It’s much easier on the county level to take all the money, but it’s fairer to have it distributed.”
At a county meeting in December, Bill Carlin, the Putnam finance commissioner, said that New York State recently began withholding some sales tax income from counties and channeling it to towns and villages through a program called Aid and Incentives for Municipalities (AIM).
According to a data shared with the Legislature’s Audit Committee on Monday (Jan. 25), AIM disbursements in 2020 were $33,820 to Philipstown; $16,537 to Cold Spring; and $3,343 to Nelsonville.
To help cover costs for the public restrooms, Galef suggested charging a small fee, which is a common practice in Europe.
Galef said that for fiscal 2021-22, state officials tentatively plan a $193 billion budget. However, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned earlier this month, New York could have a deficit of $15 billion, which would result in a 20 percent, across-the-board spending cut, said Galef, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Real Property Taxation.
President Joe Biden has proposed $1.9 trillion in stimulus funding, but Galef says some members of Congress appear to “resent having to help state governments.”
To boost revenues, Galef said, Cuomo is considering various ideas, including higher taxes on residents who earn $5 million or more annually. But the revenue from that hike would be relatively small and “underestimates the needs of New Yorkers,” a Cold Spring resident, Jeff Mikkelson, told Galef.
“Tax the wealthiest more,” added Tara Vamos, another Cold Spring resident.
Galef noted, however, that there are fears that raising taxes too much could drive the affluent to decamp to lower-tax states. “We run into this all the time,” she said. “We have to think these things through” because of unforeseen repercussions.
Mikkelson argued that there was no evidence to support the idea that higher taxes prompt the wealthy to move. “They can afford to live wherever they want,” he said, adding that California increased taxes on its highest earners and “there’s certainly no shortage of rich people in California.”
Galef wondered why Philipstown doesn’t merge its two school districts, Haldane and Garrison, to save money, an idea that has been discussed for decades.
“Maybe it requires a referee,” such as the state government, to impose consolidation, Prentice said. Both districts are relatively small: Haldane has about 800 students from kindergarten to grade 12, and Garrison has about 220 from kindergarten to grade 8. One challenge is that Garrison has a lower tax rate than Haldane.
After residents expressed frustrations at their inability to get COVID-19 vaccinations or what they regard as timely information from Putnam County, Galef proposed that county health departments share some services. As a partial remedy, she and forum participants discussed ways to remotely pair computer-savvy students and young adults with seniors and others who lack computers or internet connections.