“State of the Town” Roundtable with Supervisor Barbara Gerrard

April 3, 2009
by Christine Yeres

Last Thursday, March 26, the League of Women Voters of New Castle hosted an informal public discussion with New Castle Town Supervisor Barbara Gerrard. To an audience of about 60 at the First Congregational Church Hall, Gerrard offered a kind of “state of the town” address, and invited comments and questions. 

A tough winter in a tough economy

Gerrard painted a sober picture of the town’s finances, citing mortgage tax receipt numbers that show a marked decline year over year, from $220,993 in January 2007 to $123,440 in January 2008 and only $63,231 in January 2009. Mortgage tax is due to the down when a house in New Castle is sold. For all of 2008, there was a $400,000 shortfall in mortgage tax receipts collection. This was a major factor in the 4.8% increase in taxes for the 2009 budget, explained Gerrard. 

The harsh winter has taken a toll on town finances as well, she told the group. The town has used all of the funds, including overtime, which it had budgeted for snow removal. Indeed, to pay those bills, the town had to borrow from funds set aside for road maintenance, and there is much to do by way of spring cleaning. “The town won’t be as swept as we would like it to be,” said Gerrard, apologetically, “We’re asking the public to be understanding.” Part of the blame, she said, falls on New York State, which is responsible for maintenance and repair of state roads including Routes 117, 120 and 133. If the state doesn’t clear ice and snow from roadways quickly enough, the town ends up doing the job and incurring the expense, with no hope of reimbursement.

Attempts to reduce the cost of local government

Gerrard said that in May, the town plans to conduct a forum to educate – and tempt – municipal employees regarding early retirement. However, she added, since so many people have seen their private retirement funds and 401Ks sliced in half, even people who might have wanted to retire are reluctant to do so now. “We’ve asked Albany to see whether there are any incentives we can give people,” she said.

The town will save $10,000 in printing and postage, Gerrard said, by cutting down the number of newsletters it distributes. She gave a plug to the town’s website, MyNewCastle.org, launched in September 2008, where residents can find content from newsletters and current information. Distributing tax bills online would add to the savings in paper and postage, Gerrard suggested. Although “a quirk in New York State law says that [tax bills] have to be mailed,” according to Gerrard, the town had asked its Albany representative, Adam Bradley, to push to allow emailing of the bills instead. 

Could fewer pick-ups lead to less garbage?

Gerrard reported that the town board is considering moving from twice-a-week garbage pick up to once-a-week. Already, she said, North Castle (Armonk), Cortlandt, Pleasantville and Briarcliff Manor have gone to once-a-week. Garbage pickup now costs between $500 and $600 per household per year. Besides a reduction in cost, another benefit of a single pick up would be the reduction in carbon emissions by the trucks. Some members of the Sustainability Advisory Board have suggested, Gerrard reported, that by having to hold onto their garbage longer, residents will more likely to reduce, reuse, recycle more intensively. This, in turn, would generate additional funds in two ways: the town would pay less for garbage carting and sell more recyclable materials. Gerrard stated that New Castle now recycles 45-55% of its waste pickup. 

The cost of operating New Castle

It costs about $36 million a year to run the town, Gerrard stated, and about 80% of that is raised through taxes. After the sharp decline in the economy at the end of 2008 and the concomitant job losses, town board members were worried about payment of the January 31 school tax bills. However, the delinquency rate of 3% for January 2008, was reduced to 2% in January 2009, Gerrard reported. And as reported in NewCastleNOW.org, “Whew! School tax revenues are not down in New Castle,” 2/6/09,  more residents paid their school taxes early this year, tax year 2008, than last. 

Gerrard repeated a portion of her supervisor’s report from the town board meeting two days prior: “Property values are down 7% to 10%.” All 300 appointments available before June 1 with the town’s tax assessor, John McGrory, for an informal meeting to discuss reductions in tax assessments are filled. There is a waiting list of residents eager to fill the slots of cancelled appointments. Gerrard emphasized, it is not necessary to have an appointment with the tax assessor in order to file a tax grievance. Anyone may file a grievance between June 1 and June 16, 2009. 

Revaluation plan for New Castle

Gerrard is plain-spoken on the subject of revaluation. She told the audience that although anyone may grieve his or her property tax, “the fairer way is by a county-wide revaluation,” in which New Castle properties would be assigned a full market value, then be regularly reassessed. Taxes are apportioned now based on the property’s assessed value, which in New Castle is around 17% of full market value. When the last assessment was done, in 1979, the assessed value equaled the full market value of a property. Since then, market values have risen and the town relies on a multiplier to arrive at the fair market value of properties. 

Gerrard had met the day before with a revaluation subcommittee of the county board of legislators. “They take a long time; I was not encouraged,” she said of the meeting. “Yonkers is now on board; White Plains is pushing. We may have to do it on our own. It would cost around $1.2 million, but it’s the only fair thing to do for everybody.” She explained that although New Castle would like to benefit from the economies of scale possible that would be possible if the county took the lead in organizing a revaluation, she is exploring partnerships with other interested jurisdictions and would be willing to get started before the county. Reached by phone the next week, Gerrard said she envisioned finishing a total revaluation of New Castle properties by 2010, which, she admitted, would mean starting very soon. 

How tax grievances for some raise tax bills for others

A member of the audience asked whether a revaluation would increase residents’ taxes. Gerrard explained that the amount of taxes the town and schools require is a fixed amount. Each time the town grants a decrease in one property holder’s assessed value and, therefore, his or her taxes, all property owners share in paying the difference. “It throws the system out of kilter,” she said. “Revaluing all properties is the only fair way, finding out what [properties are] worth in today’s market. We last revalued New Castle properties in 1979.” For residents whose taxes are low because they purchased their homes long ago when the market value was much lower, there are provisions, said Gerrard, which will allow them to phase in their increased taxes over four years, paying 25% more of the increase each year. 

Gerrard suggests a reclassification of condominiums

Gerrard identified condos as an egregious category of under-assessed properties, saying, “they pay one-third to two-thirds of the taxes that a house with the same selling price pays.” New York State, she said, recognizes this, but New York City, with its proliferation of condo and coop dwellings, has resisted state legislative attempts to tax these units at the same rate that single-fee houses are taxed. Of the roughly 6700 properties in New Castle, about 612 are condominiums. A town wide or county wide revaluation would provide the opportunity for the town to reclassify condominiums as “homesteads,” and require the same type of taxation for them as for single family houses.

A member of the audience suggested that there might be some not-so-desirable impacts of a revaluation. She shared her revaluation experience in Indianapolis, pre-bubble. “Revaluation caused a lot of older people,” she said, “to put their houses on the market, which caused a decrease in property values because so many of them put their houses on the market [at the same time].” 

Gerrard responded, “That’s why a [four-year] phase-in is considered to be wise.” 

Environmental initiatives

The town board is committed to lowering New Castle’s carbon footprint 20% by the year 2015. Gerrard described the town’s membership the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, an organization whose goal is to measure towns’ current carbon footprints. “You can’t manage what you haven’t measured,” Gerrard said by way of explanation of the organization’s motivation for measurement. She encouraged her audience to sign on to the town’s website, MyNewCastle.org, to take a survey of their home’s energy usage. See also a NewCastleNOW.org
Letter to the Editor: Online Con Ed help for the New Castle Carbon Footprint Survey of February 13, 2009.

Already, to conserve energy the town is changing compact florescent lights and town vehicles observe the county’s no-idling law, which limits the time any motor vehicle may idle to three consecutive minutes, unless the temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Emergency vehicles are exempt from the law. “We’ve downsized some of our town vehicles, we’re looking at some land use legislation that’s good for the environment and we’ve added three new members to the Sustainability Advisory Board in the last few months.” 

“We’re looking for the carrot, not the stick,” she explained. “We want to encourage people to use Energy Star appliances when they remodel. We’re in the process of making the building permit process speedier so that people come to know, ‘if I can show my new construction is Energy Star, I can get through the permit process quicker.’” 

Town board members are considering creation of a “Green Building Certificate” to be awarded by the town of New Castle. The town may construct a solar wall for New Castle’s water treatment plant in Millwood. “When it was build in the mid-90s,” said Gerrard, “solar panels were put on; we’re looking at how to get a newer solar wall two stories tall, to put along the wall that will trap heat from the sun, then, by means of convection and the aid of a fan, bring heat into the building.” The solar wall might cost as much as $70,000, but would pay for itself, she estimated, within eight years if oil prices remain low, within a shorter time if oil prices rise again. 

Clean cars given parking priority

Already the parking spaces closest to the train, where the old electric cars used to recharge, are reserved for “clean cars,” vehicles with a fuel economy of 45 or more miles-to-the-gallon such as the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic hybrid and Honda Insight. “If you have a train station parking permit and a ‘clean car,’ we’ll save those spaces for you,” said Gerrard, but only until 9:30 a.m., after which time any vehicle with a permit may take the spot.

The town board is further channeling its anxiety over the economy into “green procurement” possibilities. Currently, when bidding for goods or services, Gerrard explained, “by law, we have to take the lowest bidder, without factoring in ‘useful life’ or ‘cost of disposal.’” But Gerrard believes that towns can persuade Albany to change policies and laws “to enable decision makers to take into account that, for example, although [compact florescent bulbs] are more expensive, their ‘useful life’ is much longer.” An audience member added, “How about asking how many travel miles have been built into the product? Was it made in China and traveled here in a cargo ship? And could the town ask [when deciding what bid to accept] whether a company is a green company?” 

Prohibiting the use of Belgian blocks to line driveways is another easy measure that would lead to immediate improvement in storm water management systems, an issue the state is urging towns to take more seriously. The goal in dealing with storm water is to minimize non-permeable surfaces such as asphalt parking lots and roadways. Used to give definition and a finished look to the border between lawn and driveway, an unintended consequence of the Belgian block border is the channeling of water to places where the rainfall did not originally land, preventing on-the-spot drainage and sending additional storm water to drainage points that may already be at capacity during rainfall. Gerrard hastened to assure the audience that existing Belgian block constructions would remain beyond the reach of any new town regulation.

According to Gerrard, Superintendent of Parks and Recreation Robert Snyder already applies only organic and natural products to town fields and lawns. “Homeowners are the bigger problem,” said Gerrard. “We need to educate people more to not use phosphorous.” 

The pathway that isn’t

The line has been reburied and the grass left to grow

A member of the audience asked whether the town was thinking about a way for teens to walk to and from the high school. Gerrard answered that a recreation department survey of a few years ago revealed that hiking trails were top on the list of what residents want. She recounted the town’s attempt, two years ago, to create a pedestrian pathway straight from Horace Greeley High School to downtown Chappaqua. 

When a New York City Department of Environmental Conservation consent order forced the county to replace a sewer trunk line that ran parallel to the railroad tracks behind Horace Greeley High School all the way through to downtown Chappaqua, the town persuaded the county to create a pedestrian and bike pathway over the newly buried trunk line, now a broad, flat straightaway. There was a brief window of opportunity during which the pathway might have been laid. The town attempted to procure easements from two property owners whose yards backed onto the pathway around the midpoint of the route. The owners declined to give the easements, the town dropped the plan and the county left the pathway to grow grass. 

Police facility expansion

New Castle’s 42 police officers share offices, one bathroom for men and women officers, and operate in space, said Gerrard, one third of the minimum recommended square footage for a police department of its size. Several years ago, the town board hired an architect who produced a conceptual plan that would roughly double the size of the existing town hall and possibly accommodate the Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corps as well, at a cost of around $15 million, bonded over ten or twenty years.

As part of their study of possible municipal uses of the 118-acre Reader’s Digest property, the town’s consultants Saccardi & Schiff are exploring the relocation of either the town’s buildings and permit offices or the recreation department to rental space at the Reader’s Digest property, which would free up town hall space for police uses. However, Gerrard explained, “the longer term solution seems to be to increase the size of the town hall building.” 

Gerrard reported that recently the town had applied for stimulus money from the state, and gave a figure of $18 million as the project’s cost. It was the architect of the conceptual plan who provided the figure for the application, said Town Administrator Gennaro Faiella afterwards. Faiella called the $18 million figure “a high estimate including all the soft costs, on the conservative side because of all the unknowns.” There is $150,000 in the current year’s budget for architectural services to continue with plans for the expansion, and a $10 million projection for a bond sits in the budget for the year 2010.  From our archives, to see the schematic of the expansion and a slide show peek into headquarters, click ”Town board reviews plan to expand police facilities” (10/3/08).

Pink is existing town hall, blue and green show first floor of the plan for expansion



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