Town Board members only cast their vote after a dramatic display. In the opening minutes of the meeting, Councilman Logan had voted to adjourn without discussion — because he felt the Dec. 6 emergency meeting was improperly noticed. His board colleagues outvoted him. To public access viewers at home, it looked like Logan had — as he’d threatened — left Town Hall in opposition to even discussing the Squire Sanders hiring. In fact, he’d taken an off-camera seat near the door, sitting there throughout the entire meeting. He came back down at the end to cast a vote to delay.
Supervisor Susan Zimet at first voted no to delay, saying “because we’re losing $1 million,” but later changed her mind. Potentially, the town could get up to $1 million of the $35 million set aside by the state for that Citizen Empowerment Tax Credit program if the merger goes through. That financial aid would roll in year after year — at least for as long as the governor’s incentive program exists.
“But we’re not losing $1 million,” Councilwoman Brown said, adding that they could just apply for it in 2014. “I think we’ve been sold a bill of goods on this — the money is there.”
Under pressure and a bit flippantly, Zimet switched her stance. “I would have voted yes if you needed me. Okay. Change my vote to yes, so this way Kitty’s happy.”
Officially, the vote to delay sets up a special meeting on Dec. 17, 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall, to showcase the committee reports to the public, including the Finance Committee report. Town and village officials will give ample time for community members to discuss the reports.
On Jan. 9, the two boards will meet again to discuss and officially accept the Finance Committee report as final. If a majority of the elected officials vote affirmatively, that would kick off another meeting on Jan. 24 — where Squire Sanders would officially be hired to develop the merger plan.
If all that happens according to plan, the public referendum vote will happen after the state’s April 1 deadline. That could be any time from late April to the general election in November.
Critics from the crowd find issue with special meeting
Despite the short turnaround and lack of a full week’s notice about the Dec. 6 meeting, a number of people showed up to speak about the consolidation vote. Many came to complain.
For KT Tobin, the abrupt meeting posting seemed suspect — perhaps a way to hold a momentous vote away from the sunshine and public scrutiny.
“Actually, my first question was what is sufficient public notice given for this meeting? Because I know it was a surprise for many of us,” Tobin said. “Along the same lines, I think that mere fact you have to do an emergency meeting is kind of emblematic of a process that — with all due respect — has lacked organization and planfulness from the start.”
Tobin, a former school board member, accused the town and village of populating the subcommittees with members biased toward consolidation. She also criticized Zimet and Councilman Kevin Barry for placing so much faith in tax abatement grants “contingent on the politicos in Albany.”
In August, the supervisor and deputy mayor scored a big win when Gov. Cuomo signed an amendment to the law establishing the Citizen Empowerment Tax program, which would allow so-called “coterminous” governments to receive grant funding. For those without a dictionary nearby, coterminous refers to two entities that share the same boundaries.
In New Paltz’s case, the Village Board would take over the town — sometimes voting on town matters, sometimes village ones. Right now, each board has five members. It remains unclear if membership would change after a merger, but a new townwide village charter could call for seven, nine or even more elected representatives.
Tobin wanted the village and town to slow down and explain the basics of what they were doing and why.
“I still don’t know the answer to the fundamental question of ‘why are we doing this?’” she said. “I have not heard a serious discussion of this basic premise that upon all this lies. Why do we have a village and a town? Why do some say we need both? Why do some say we don’t need both? It’s so strikingly missing from the conversation.”
Deputy Mayor Rhoads denied that the subcommittee members explicitly favored consolidation, but noted that recruiting interested volunteers had been a challenge.
One report from the subcommittees has been a cause for worry among municipal employees. The Human Resources Committee report details how the merged town-village might restructure its employee roster. It recommends eliminating 13 full-time positions, mostly from the town’s Buildings and Grounds Department. According to the report, that might save $800,000 to $1 million.
Michael Zierler, a current member of the village Planning Board and the former deputy mayor, praised the current town and village employees, but also criticized the way that report filtered out to the public.
“It’s an incredible group of people. And having served on the Village Board for five years, I can say this is a remarkably stable and extraordinarily hardworking group of people,” Zierler said. “For them to be put in a position where they feel like their jobs are at risk — because of a report from a committee without substantiation — I think is outrageous.”
Members of the Human Resources Committee included Town Board member Kevin Barry, village Trustee Brian Kimbiz, Police Commission member Randall Leverette, Don Kerr, Amy Cohen and Ross Pollack.
Jon Cohen is the owner of the Groovy Blueberry tie-dye clothing shop. He defended the work of that group, which included his wife Amy. He too, like Deputy Mayor Rhoads, pointed out that the committee meetings were televised. He said the Human Resources members were extremely sensitive to the fact they could be cutting livelihoods, and he noted that the 13 full-time cuts would come through attrition and retirement — representing a gradual savings over time.
The report confirms that, but the confusion is somewhat understandable on the part of the employees. A section on page four mentions that 13 positions would be “eliminated,” but doesn’t immediately mention how. Further down on page nine, the report notes that “employee headcount reductions should coincide with retirement to the extent possible.”
Accusing those elected officials who’d want to block the consolidation of political turf protection, Cohen added that citizens needed tax relief now to avoid being taxed out of their homes.
“We are coming to our own fiscal cliff,” he said. “Time is of the essence.”
Zierler disagreed with a need to rush the decision. Despite the wide-ranging impacts of merging the village and town, he thought the general public was uninformed.
“Almost nobody in this community is paying attention to this. And you all are interested in trying to vote on an extraordinary change and a stark change for this community in just a few months,” the former deputy mayor said. “When I walk around in the mornings and afternoons walking my dog, and I speak to people — most people haven’t even heard of this. Or if they have, they know nothing. They know no facts. They don’t have much of an opinion because they have no information.”
Don Kerr, who sat on the Human Resources Committee, also urged the town and village to delay. He served on the school board in 2010 when voters overwhelmingly rejected a $50-million renovation to New Paltz Middle School. That election sparked a trend of skeptical, recession-weary voters. In April, a proposal to buy land near Lenape Elementary School also went down in flames.
“I’m working in good faith to get the facts and see whether or not consolidation makes sense. People in this room know that,” Kerr said. “I’m troubled. And I said this several months ago, because I have this feeling of déjà vu.” Like others in the crowd, the former school board president likened the consolidation vote to the middle school bond failure.
He added: “If you’re going to lead, make sure someone’s behind you. I’m telling you, this is happening too fast. I don’t know that this meeting is legal.”
State Open Meetings Law requires that public meeting notifications are posted and put into the newspaper at least one week before a meeting takes place. People who feel a violation of the law has taken place can sue the town in an Article 78 proceeding. Public officials found guilty of breaking the law face penalties, including having to attend training courses to learn about the law. However, under some circumstances, even if a judge found that the law had been broken, it might not invalidate actions taken at the meeting.
According to town Councilman Jeff Logan, board members themselves only heard about the meeting on Dec. 3. This paper received notice of the meeting one day later — too late for people to read about it last week in the Legals section, but soon enough for us to cover it.