Catching Up with the Putnam Legislature

Indian Point

Drawing immediate bipartisan criticism, a Putnam County legislative committee last week refused to oppose the planned discharge of radioactive waste from the defunct Indian Point nuclear power plant into the Hudson River and instead asked federal officials to ensure no harm results from the move.

In a resolution approved March 21 and sent to the full Legislature for consideration, the Health-Social-Educational-Environmental Committee declared that federal authorities should exercise oversight because radioactive discharges “must not cause any detrimental environmental impact to the river” and “not compromise the health or safety of those who use the Hudson,” which provides drinking water as well as seafood, recreation and transportation. 

The resolution further asks Rep. Michael Lawler and the state’s two U.S. senators “to obtain assurances” from the Environmental Protection Agency and Nuclear Regulatory Commission that they will prevent the release if any harm would ensue.  

Legislator William Gouldman, a Republican who represents most of Putnam Valley, objected that the proposed resolution “does not say anything of any substance” and “doesn’t go far enough.” The federal government often “gives assurances that turn out to not be true,” he said. “There are alternatives out there” to discharging the water and “I wish we’d do a resolution which says that.”

The proposed resolution “does nothing to prevent the discharge,” said Legislator Nancy Montgomery, the Legislature’s sole Democrat, who represents Philipstown and the remainder of Putnam Valley. “It’s unbearable to see this committee not address this in a meaningful way.” 

Montgomery offered an alternate version stating that the Legislature “strongly opposes the plan to release over a million gallons of contaminated water” containing cancer-causing isotopes as well as carcinogenic tritium, and endorsing state legislation that would ban discharges into the Hudson or other state waterways.

Democrats Dana Levenberg, whose Assembly district includes Philipstown, and Pete Harckham, whose Senate district includes eastern Putnam, introduced the measure, which Rob Rolison, a Republican whose Senate district includes Philipstown and Beacon, supports. 

Montgomery’s draft also described the Hudson as an economic resource. In her remarks to the committee, she added that by threatening river recreation, the release could imperil the county’s sales tax revenue. 

The three committee members declined to consider her draft. Legislator Amy Sayegh of Mahopac-Carmel, who chairs the committee, said Montgomery’s measure could invite more dangerous solutions to the problem.

“No one wants to release radiation into the environment, especially into a precious resource like the Hudson River,” she said. However, she cautioned, “there are trade-offs” and the committee wants federal officials to follow “best practices.” Given the apparently tiny amounts of radioactive material that would be released annually, she said, “I don’t think we’re talking about poisoning our population.”

Hotel tax

In taking a new look at occupancy taxes for hotels, motels and short-term rentals, the Legislature’s Economic Development and Energy Committee on March 22 reached beyond its members for input — and got some from Garrison resident Nat Prentice.

The committee had previously toyed with charging sales tax on hotel rooms in February 2020, before the pandemic. 

Prentice, president of the Cold Spring Chamber of Commerce and the Putnam County Business Council, pointed to the village’s interest in a room tax. He noted that municipalities can use a system that identifies premises used as STRs so that enforcement of regulations becomes easier.

Bill Nulk, who heads Putnam’s Industrial Development Agency, asked the committee to be cautious about a county tax because Putnam doesn’t have many hotels and it wouldn’t generate much revenue, so it would be “just one more reason not to come to Putnam if you’re looking for a hotel.”

However, Legislator Greg Ellner of Carmel, who chairs the committee, noted that in nearby Danbury, Connecticut, hotel guests pay a 15 percent tax. Most other counties in New York impose a tax of 2 to 4 percent, he said. Considering what Danbury charges, “I don’t see how we’re going to be disincentivizing people from coming here.” 

Ellner suggested that the county could charge a set price, such as $10 to $15 per room, instead of a tax based on a percentage. Whatever the approach, he said, “hopefully, there will be some revenue stream.” 

Sales tax

Legislators at an Audit Committee meeting on Monday (March 27) heard that sales tax revenue continues to surge, with Putnam receiving $12.7 million in the first two months of 2023, or $1.5 million more than in the same period last year. 

Sales tax goes first to New York State, which gives some of it back to each county. Most counties, unlike Putnam, return a portion of their allotment to the towns and villages in which it originated. In 2022, after longstanding pleas from local officials, then-County Executive MaryEllen Odell announced intentions to share some sales tax, along with federal pandemic-relief funds. 

Her successor, Kevin Byrne, who took office in January, last fall signaled strong disagreement with sales-tax sharing and the county has not revisited the idea. 

Body cameras

On March 22, the Protective Services Committee met in private to review the Sheriff’s Department body-camera policy with Sheriff Kevin McConville. In a March 14 memo, McConville emphasized that the session must occur in secret.

As the three committee members left for the executive session, the chair, Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson, explained that they were meeting privately because of “the potential of detail of law enforcement that may have to be discussed, and officer safety.”

When the committee re-emerged, Nacerino assured the audience that “there were no actions taken.” 

Nonetheless, Montgomery questioned the decision to retreat, saying the department’s body-camera policies should be public. She noted that the Westchester County police and New York State Police have released their policies.

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