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Six Steps to Move Rye Forward
By Doug French
In 2014, despite coming out of the worst recession in our lifetimes, and after years of major bouts with Mother Nature, the City of Rye was in as strong of a position as ever.
Cash on reserve had been increased by millions; growth in operating expenses had been held in check; property tax increases for the five-year period averaged below the rate of inflation; major infrastructure projects were completed or fully funded; quality-of-life initiatives were developed and implemented; and, after ten years, the framework for labor peace was put in place.
However, the City is going sideways, even backwards on many key indicators. Here are six fundamental principles that have made the City great and can do so again:
1. Re-committ a Commitment to Our City Manager Form of Government
Per the City Charter, paid professionals administer the City’s operations with oversight by the City Council in its role as the legislative body. But continued undermining of City management has created a vacuum in the necessary leadership to effectively administer City operations. A charter change that the Council approved — but didn’t vote on —giving itself increased authority – outside of a public referendum — is not how we govern.
2. Bring Back Core Financial Planning
The Citizen’s Finance Committee used to be a keyboard in helping the City identify operating efficiencies and cost-saving measures. Their recommendations were at the core of major budget and policy changes in City operations, yet, they were left out of this year’s budget. Further, reserves that were set aside for much-needed capital improvements have instead gone to pay for rising operating expenses – breaking a longstanding City financial policy. Property tax increases are back to over 3 percent and that rate is doubled when the reduction in surplus to cover operating is factored in.
3. Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Infrastructure
The City was left with millions of dollars in surplus for planned infrastructure improvements as part of a strategy to repair roads, sidewalks, sewers, downtown, the Boston Post Road wall, flood mitigation, the Police Station and much, much more. All of which make our City a great place to live and improve property values. Also, it’s been 2½ years since the public voted overwhelmingly with 4,500 votes in support of a capital improvement bond which added an additional $2 million dollars for much-needed infrastructure repairs. However, our roads and downtown continue to crumble. Time to start executing.
4. Litigation Management
Recent legal quagmires have cost the City more and put it in far greater risk when the same result could have been achieved for a lot less. The Caspi police brutality case is the latest example where rising fees from outside attorneys and consultants far outpaced what the case should have cost taxpayers. A Litigation and Case Management Sub-Committee was established years ago to oversee and manage the financial and overall risk of litigation in response to costly lawsuits and insurance premiums. The performance of that committee was unprecedented. Every case was either won or settled favorably for the City –except one, and that was the Rye Town property tax lawsuit in which a Council majority reversed the committee recommendation.
5. Lights, Camera, Action on Land Use
Land use continues to be at the core of most public angst and ambiguity, yet pending legislation before the Council has yet to be adopted that would, like most surrounding communities, televise land use board and committee hearings. The public deserves to know about the what, when, why, and who on decisions that impact development in our neighborhoods and a multi-billion dollar real estate market. Low-cost technology is available to televise these meetings and would make land use information fully transparent and accessible. An informed public is worth the investment.
6. Collaborative, Open Communication and Action
City decision-making needs to be open, public, and transparent. Boards, colleagues, and especially City management and staff should be shown respect for their contributions to the community that make Rye what it is. Accusatory attacks set the wrong tone and go against our tradition of volunteers and professionals working together to solve problems. Further, newly created subcommittees on issues that have already been vetted by Rye and other communities such as deer, noise, and others only serve to delay decision-making. Legislative action, not more fact-finding, is what’s needed.
These six core principles helped the City thrive during its most difficult challenges and can once again get the City moving forward.
The author was the City’s Mayor from 2010-2013.
City Has No Right to Ignore Requests for Information From Residents
I went to the April 8 City Council meeting to ask the City to respond to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request that I filed over four months ago.
I’d heard rumors that Mayor Sack and/or some City Council members had been interfering with the Police Department, so I filed a FOIL request for information about communications between them and the City Manager and/or the Police Commissioner regarding the conduct of the police department.
I filed it on December 2, 2014, and immediately received an email acknowledgement of my request. On January 2, I got another email from the City saying “IN PROGRESS.” That was the last I heard.
The law says that when a citizen requests this sort of information a municipality must provide it in 20 business days. (The time frame may be longer in exceptional circumstances, such as a very complicated request; that isn’t the case here.) If a municipality fails to provide the information it must issue a formal denial, which has to be for a good reason, such as that the information doesn’t exist, or is privileged. When a request is denied, a citizen may appeal the denial.
The City has not provided the information I requested. Nor has it denied my request, which would allow me to appeal the denial. This is an outrage! Rye residents have the right – the legal right — to know what their elected officials are doing. Ignoring a FOIL request is unethical, it is illegal, and it is a red flag. It suggests that the rumors are true, that our elected officials have been inappropriately interfering with our Police Department, and that there are e-mails that show it.
The meeting Mayor Sack angrily stopped me from finishing what I’d come to say. His disdain for residents’ requests for information they are legally entitled to is only one example of this City Council’s arrogance. We saw their arrogance and terrible judgment with the change in the selection process for Police Commissioner. We’re seeing it again with talk of changing our City Charter to allow Council members to contact City department heads outside of the chain of command or knowledge of the City Manager.
These changes will subject the City’s professional staff to politics, patronage, and partisan interference – things they have been protected from, until now. In flouting some laws and rewriting others to undermine our professional management system of city government, this Council is doing our community a disservice.
— Meg Cameron
Understanding School Budget Reality
As the Rye City School District continues its annual budget planning cycle, I encourage all members of the community to stay informed on the deliberations by attending or viewing replays of school board meetings. Facts are important, and without accuracy, the efficacy of our community discussion will run amok.
New York’s tax cap legislation is flawed in many ways, most notably by providing no adjustment for growing unfunded state mandates, including pension funding. A recent letter suggested that there should be a collective push back on such mandates, a suggestion to which I wholeheartedly agree. Our School Board has been asking for the community’s assistance since tax cap legislation was enacted, but unfortunately with limited engagement. School boards and their associations have been pushing back for years, but their voices are few, and the current governor’s office remains deaf to their cause.
The tax cap similarly fails to adjust for growing enrollment. Student enrollment grew 11.6% since 2007-08. In many ways, we are challenged by our own success. As an elite performing district, we continue to attract education-focused families. But as old homes are razed, replaced with new, larger homes, the tax math doesn’t look so compelling. The tax cap is applied to the overall levy – not to any particular taxpayer’s rate. So, for example, if a new, larger home is built after a tear-down, resulting in the school taxes rising from $15,000 to $35,000, the incremental $20,000 does not flow into the permitted school district revenue. It is instead reflected in a reapportionment benefiting all other taxpayers. But if that same renovated home comes with three school-age children — each educated at an average cost of $21,700 – it is easy to see how quickly our school budget becomes pinched by the tax cap.
School districts with declining enrollment can more easily manage budgets within the tax cap, using declining staffing needs to offset their rising unfunded mandates. Thus, not all districts are as vocal as Rye when it comes to supporting an enrollment adjusted tax cap. In fact, student enrollment for all of Westchester declined marginally since 07-08, compared to Rye’s 11.6% gain.
The recent letter also suggested imposing a per student surchage, an anathema to the principles of public education and which is not allowed under state law. Within New York State, schools are funded through varying proportions of local property taxes, state and Federal aid, grants, and other sources. Being an affluent community, the Rye City School District is reliant on a higher share of local property taxes than most districts. Moreover, with a limited commercial and industrial base, housing property taxes make up the lion’s share of our tax revenue.
Lastly, as a Metro-North commuter, I find it notable that the recent 4% fare increase was necessitated in part by a system “bursting at the seams.” Sound familiar?
I plan to vote yes for the school budget.
— R. Schmitt