Consolidation study recommendations draw fire at New Paltz Town Hall meeting

New Paltz mayor Jason West and town supervisor Susan Zimet. (Illustration by Lauren Thomas)

After a 19-month study, with little public engagement outside of the Steering Committee and Citizens’ Advisory Committee (CAC), New Paltz Town Hall was filled with residents interested, concerned or wanting to express their thoughts on the proposed Government Efficiency and Effectiveness Project. This project was the result of a joint village and town grant award for $50,000 to study all government options. They hired Fairweather Consultants to guide them through the process and put together a steering committee made up of town, village, school district and SUNY-New Paltz representatives, as well as town and village residents. Nineteen months later, the report was accepted by the steering committee and presented to both boards for acceptance.

While the two boards at last Tuesday night’s joint meeting accepted the work of the committee and moved to create a new committee that would create the “framework, investigate the cost implications and work with the state government to produce a plan to present to the public” to vote on, there was a lot of discussion and dissent from the public and from village mayor Jason West.

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At the very least, the steering committee suggests a plan for shared services between the village and town, and hypothetically with the school district and college, but specifically hones in on creating one Highway Department under which buildings and grounds and what is currently the Village Department of Public Works (DPW) operate as one entity and not three separate entities. The recommendations suggest that New Paltz consider a coterminous government, whereby the village and town boundaries remain equal and they both exist on paper, but there is one government.

The steering committee recommended that this government consist of a seven-person board, with one person representing the village, one from the town, a mayor and four others. It also suggests that a separate chief financial officer be hired and that it not be the mayor. This proposed government would also create only one clerk (there are now a village clerk, a town clerk and several deputies in the town) and one Highway Department that would include the DPW, but would have a superintendent who was appointed and not elected. The recommendation in pursuit of a coterminous arrangement also called for the village to give up running its own non-partisan elections and for the county to take over New Paltz’s elections.

The potential tax impacts, according to the committee’s findings, could show anywhere from an 11 percent to a 25 percent decrease in village taxes and a six percent to 12 percent increase in taxes for town residents living outside the village. That said, steering committee member and town councilperson Kitty Brown explained, prior to the consultants doing their presentation and before the public input, that the committee was adamant in its recommendations that “town residents bear no increased tax burden if we wish to pursue a sole government.”

Two ways this could happen, theoretically, would be a five-percent total reduction in the budget and/or a revenue stream from the New York State Department of State, which funded the $50,000 study. A glaring glitch in this potential revenue stream, according to Fairweather Consultants, is that the Department of State and the Department of Finance in New York, while pushing for consolidation throughout the state, do not recognize a “coterminous” government as a “consolidated” government. Town supervisor Susan Zimet claimed, prior to public input, that this was very likely an oversight of the state, and speculated that she believed that governor Andrew Cuomo’s upcoming budget might “rectify that language,” which in her estimation would allow for state funding.

Zimet also said that she wanted to read a statement by Dr. Gerald Benjamin before the public spoke or asked questions, as he could not be there. While she did not read the statement, she did appear to paraphrase some of Benjamin’s comments, saying, “There is close to $1 million for municipalities that consolidate to help lower property taxes in the budget. We believe it was a technicality that ‘coterminous’ was not listed as a consolidated government, and Dr. Benjamin — who was on the phone with the governor’s office today on another subject, but brought this one up — said that the error might be changed in his upcoming budget.” If it wasn’t, said Zimet, she had put on the agenda and encouraged the two boards to pass a resolution asking their state representatives to request a Home Rule for State Aid under the Citizens’ Empowerment Tax Credit program.”

She went on to say that Benjamin suggested — and she concurred with the idea — that they try to put a referendum up for the voters on a coterminous plan for the November elections, as this “will be a presidential election year with high turnout,” but noted that they had to “work backwards and have the resolution prepared for the Board of Elections 45 days prior to the elections.”

This whole notion caused a lot of ire with the public that was present, including Jonathan Wright, who felt that the key questions at the heart of the grant and the study were not answered.

“I thought the two most important questions that the consultants should have been able to answer, but did not, are: How can we have better local government? And how can we find ways to save money and lower taxes? I was surprised that the village and town governments voted to accept this study as complete, if it could not articulate either of those two key criteria.”

Instead, he said, “Supervisor Susan Zimet preempts the agenda to what she says is to ‘read remarks’ from Dr. Benjamin. And then she continues to paraphrase his statement and did not read a word. She forced the question of fast-tracking this community discussion and ultimate vote on consolidation. She did this and put her interpretation of Dr. Benjamin’s remarks ahead of questions from the public, and more importantly, questions about the results of this study and the quality of its recommendations.”

Former village deputy mayor Michael Zierler also took issue with the timeline that Zimet had set forth. While he thanked all those who participated for their hard work, he said that he would “echo the mayor [who was the sole vote on the steering committee against approving the recommendations] that there is not nearly enough information here to make an informed decision, nor does it show how it might yield any great benefits or where the duplication is, or how it will make government more efficient.”

He went on to say, “It doesn’t matter to me that there’s an upcoming presidential election, which might get more voters out, because the question remains: What are they voting on? We need to look at this as thoroughly and as critically as we can, for as long as it takes for us to be assured that whatever is proposed really does yield benefits to taxpayers in the efficiency of how their government runs, how services are delivered…there’s been very limited community public input in 19 months, and when we finally get an engaging discussion, you’re attempting to push this to a referendum.”

KT Tobin, a member of the CAC, concurred. “Nothing in this study identifies where we have duplication of services, or how we are efficient or not efficient…we need answers to those questions before we fast-track the coterminous idea when there are no clear benefits outlined. I implore you not to fast-track this.”

Leonard Loza, a village resident with multiple properties, said, “If we have one government entity and one Highway Department, how can I be assured that I’m going to get the same level of service that the DPW gives me now? Are you going to get rid of Bleu [Terwilliger, head of the DPW]? Is the person now in charge, the ‘appointed superintendent of highways,’ going to be prepared to handle the incredible workload in the village? Will they need an assistant? Multiple assistants? None of this is answered. And if you’re able to get part of that $1 million to offset taxes, how much would you get, when would you get it? And is it a one-year deal? If so, you’re back to Square One.”

Others asked how the town and village, if they were to become one government, would rectify all of their different zoning laws, building codes and zoned areas. Fairweather said that that would take “time — probably two years after the government was created. But in the meantime they would remain as they are, until they could be combined under one code.”

Amanda Sissenstein said that “November was way too soon” to vote on this. She said that “Many CAC members felt alienated from the very beginning. No one knew what they were supposed to do; there was hardly any public engagement…I too implore you to hold off.”

Several town residents expressed their concern over the potential that their taxes would go up. “What good does this plan do for us?” asked one town resident. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; and I don’t see what’s broke, except that our taxes keep going up. And this plan shows them going up even more — not to mention all the legal fees it would take to put this into action. You’re just taking taxpayers’ money to research something that will cost us more money.”

Wright asked the question why “we would want to abdicate our village-run non-partisan elections to the County. That makes no sense. And what about having multiple wards for greater representation?”

Fairweather said that that was an excellent question, and one that needed to be vetted out. The consultant reiterated time and time again that this is “the real starting point,” where the public becomes engaged, they have a document and a lot of empirical data to study and need to “hash out all kinds of recommendations to create a plan that has public buy-in…These are just recommendations for the public to digest and discuss and pursue or not,” he said.

Wright said that he was in support of the grant from the beginning, and has seen the town and village operate in a “dysfunctional way for years,” and that, while he believes that there are “probably savings in a smaller, leaner and more professional government, I want the consultants to show us where and how. What did the grant money pay for, if not to answer those questions? We did not come out of the joint town and village meeting with that answered.”

Mayor West continued to say that the study and the recommendations, in his estimation, “are filled with maybes and ifs” without any “concrete answers as to why we should move in this direction, where the inefficiencies are, how they can be improved, what those steps are…I’ve heard nothing here to persuade me.”

Town councilman Jeff Logan suggested that the public go onto the newpaltz.ning site, where there are “hundreds of pages of reports and documents that are amazingly easy to read and understand and have been very helpful in understanding the process and how the committee came to these decisions.”

Trustee Brian Kimbiz said, “We’ve been doing things piecemeal for a long time as two governments serving one community, and I don’t see any reason not to take this and move forward and do more work with it so that we can present it to the public to decide. If it’s not what they want, then they can vote it down. But New Paltz is becoming very hard for people who work here to be able to live here, and I don’t want to see this trend increase, nor taxes to increase. It’s pushing seniors out, young families out, and everyone is hurting.

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“I don’t want us to kill this right here. Too much work has been done, and there are still many questions to answer. If one government can make things more simplified for people and could potentially reduce taxes, then that’s something we need to seriously consider. But one huge issue that was raised, and I agree with, is that we need to keep village-run elections and non-partisan elections in New Paltz. That’s one of the things I love about the village is its non-partisan elections.”

Trustee Sally Rhoads said, “We’re not here to protect our own jobs. If we lose our jobs, so be it. We’re here to protect you: the residents.”

The two boards agreed to accept the study and move forward with establishing a new committee and all of whom expressed hope and belief that they were moving, if not in a good direction, then a better one toward serving their constituents.

While West agreed to vote on the first two motions, he voted nay on drafting a letter asking state representatives to request that the legislature allow for “State Aid under the Citizens’ Empowerment tax credit program.” When his board approved it, he said that he “wasn’t going to write it. You can’t put words in my mouth.” Trustees Rhoads and Stewart Glenn said that they believed a majority board vote required him to do so at their direction.

For more information on the details of the study, the recommendations and the commentary, go to newpaltz.ning.com. ++

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