Mayor, supervisor-elect split on consolidation study recommendations

New Paltz supervisor-elect Susan Zimet and mayor Jason West. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

With the Government Efficiency Steering Committee voting in favor of a coterminous government for New Paltz, the ball is now in the hands of the town and village boards to see or not to see those recommendations through.

The leaders at the helm of village and town, mayor Jason West and incoming supervisor Susan Zimet, are at odds in the race to consolidate. During her campaign for supervisor — a position that she held for two terms 15 years ago before losing her third term and then becoming a county legislator — Zimet supported consolidation.

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She said that prior to serving as supervisor, when she read the New Paltz Times and her children were young and in the public school district, that she was often “perplexed about the conflicts between the town and the village. I didn’t understand the distinction. I knew that was where my kids went to school, we worshipped, shopped and generally lived our life as part of the New Paltz community.” After entering office, she said, she “learned quickly that it was the structure of the two governments that created a lot of the conflict, as the two governments operate under different state laws. To me, the two governments stood in the way of planning wisely for the community and were more costly to the taxpayers in delivering the needed services.”

Understanding that, shortly before her tenure as supervisor, the village residents had handily rejected a resolution to dissolve into the town, and Zimet decided that a “more positive approach would be to extend the village boundaries to incorporate the town and have a coterminous government. That way you weren’t losing any identity, but would be gaining efficiencies and the ability to make decisions that worked for the community.”

While “consolidation” and various “One New Paltz” proponents and studies were done during the past several years, nothing came to pass until the town and village voted to apply for and then received a $50,000 New York Department of State grant to look at “all government options” for New Paltz. Fairweather Consultants were hired and a steering committee was formed, as well as a Citizens’ Advisory Committee.

After a year-and-a-half, the recommendation of the study was for a coterminous government: something that could be predicted to lower the taxes of village residents by a large margin but raise town taxes. The concept is that with the help of state aid, and over a few years, the dividends to taxpayers would pay off.

Despite the research and draft and final reports, mayor West is not convinced. “The study does not provide us with enough information to make an informed decision,” said West, who voted against the recommendations. “There are enormous gaps in the study’s area of research and what the potential costs would be. We’re dealing with two multi-million-dollar budgets, and I don’t believe a $50,000 study can do justice as to how those two would merge…there are no legal implications in the study, no personnel discussion about jobs being lost…no real cost analysis of any significance.”

To that end, West said that one thing that he did find disturbing in the study was that “if consolidation were to happen, we [the village] would lose our ability to apply for and receive Small Cities grants and HUD grants, which are based on income and population. These are grants which we are awarded almost every year, and amount to millions in infrastructure upgrades and repairs that under this model we’d have to bond for. We’re talking $2.4 million of funded repairs and upgrades every four years. The study doesn’t mention that.”

West called the public process of the study “anemic at best, and almost nonexistent.” He added that to talk about such a restructuring, “We need to have an open, transparent public process where everything is laid out on the table. This did not happen at all. And the costs to the taxpayers are too high to just go with the recommendations of a few.”

Zimet did not concur, and said that the time was now to move forward with consolidation. “It is now 15 years later, and times have changed. The town and the village got money from the state, volunteers gave their time and a recommendation to do what I proposed all those years back was recommended,” she said.

“The economics of today are very different,” she said. “Taxes have escalated beyond the capacity for people to pay; people have lost their jobs; retirement savings are depleted and people are very scared. At the most recent Town Board budget meeting, people were pleading with the Town Board to deliver a bare-bones budget.”

Because the state is pushing consolidation so hard, Zimet believes that this is “a great opportunity for the community. If the state is as dedicated to consolidation as they say they are, then they need to put their money where their mouth is. Some ideas I would like to see happen is have the state pay a PILOT [Payment in Lieu of Taxes] for the increased cost of emergency services, due to the impact of the college on our community that is not offset by any taxes. I would also like to see them help defray costs for the bonds for the village sewer system. These two cost-drivers would benefit both the Town and Village taxpayers as we create this new government.”

Zimet believes that her board backs consolidation. “I believe that the Town Board is basically 100 percent supportive, and that the majority of the Village Board is also…I would hope Jason would have an open mind about the process and take a wait-and-see [attitude toward] what kind of government comes out of the planning.”

West said that it was not about “keeping an open mind,” but about “recommendations that had almost no public input and were based on very few facts. I’m very open-minded, but let’s continue and improve upon the tools we already have for consolidating services and saving taxpayers money, which we do every day. If we want a new structure of government for the future, then let’s all sit down and plan that vision of what we’d like New Paltz to look like in the future. This plan does not even begin to address that.” ++

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