While the outpouring was not great with possibly two dozen residents in attendance, the majority of whom are already appointed to the project’s steering committee -- the questions raised and input provided and information gathered was substantial.
Initially, two of the steering committee members, Sally Rhoads and Ellen Rocco, introduced themselves and the project to the dozen or so community members who had come out to learn and participate in the project at its very early stages.
“We want to encourage people to foster conversation on this study, this issue, participate, because it is our town and our village,” Rocco said.
“And our community,” added Rhoads. “Most importantly we are a community first and foremost.”
The consultant hired to guide the process is Peter Fairweather, of Fairweather Consultants, who lives in the village. He began the meeting this last week with a PowerPoint presentation explaining the process, the concerns and options for a restructured government. Fairweather noted that the study needed to take into consideration empirical data, community input and weigh the implications of each possible change -- or non-change -- to the dual-government system.
“There is the potential fiscal, operational and legal implications of looking at new ways of structuring our government,” he said. “How would the dissolution of the village impact taxpayers fiscally? Operationally? What would the legal steps be? Are they known, relatively easy legal steps or is it something without precedence? How hard and costly would that be?
“What would residents be willing to pay to keep what they have, or what would they be willing to gain and/or give up to see a reduction in their taxes? These are only some of the questions that each option we look at needs to have answers to.”
Fairweather, who has done this type of restructuring work and analysis in many communities throughout New York State, repeatedly said that while there are lessons to be learned from the process in which other municipalities have gone through, there is no exact guideline as “each community is different and is faced with specific challenges.”
He mentioned the town and village of Lake George, where his firm is working on a similar type of study and implementation process. He explained that there were various types of possibilities and concerns if the village was to merge their highway department with the town.
“Would they contract out to a private firm, or contract with the town? What was the revenue and cost of the village highway department? Where would their equipment go?”
In the end, the analysis showed that by merging that department with the town the budget line of the village would be reduced by $271,000 and the increase for the town approximately $111,000 -- with the cumulative savings being $161,000 for all taxpayers.
When it came to parks, there was another concern and question. Since Lake George is fueled economically by tourism, the village parks were something that were of great concern to the village as they considered merging or dissolution or co-terminus structures.
“The village government had to consider what they would do with the maintenance and funding of their parks, which are a large part of their tourism economy,” he explained. “Do they trust the town with that? Do they contract out?”
The PowerPoint presentation quickly subsided into a dialogue with the few members of the public present. Former village trustee and Deputy Mayor Michael Zierler concurred with Peter Healey, also a former village trustee, that the “advisory committee” should appoint people and not the town and village boards.
“I agree with Pete that the advisory committee should represent as broad and diverse a group as possible,” he said.
Healey said that advisory members should represent all organizations, “groups that could be affected by any change in government including the business community.”
Healey added: “Family of New Paltz, farmers, the Fire Department, Rescue Squad, police, school district, senior citizens task force.”
“The idea that the boards would each approve a dozen ‘town’ and ‘village’ residents is antithetical to what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Zierler said. “It sets up an unnecessary antagonism that I believe we’re trying to avoid in this process.”
Fairweather said that both made very good points and noted that “it was an organizational move and sounded, at the time, like a straightforward, fair way to appoint the advisory committee.”
Supervisor Toni Hokanson said that she would certainly consider Healey and Zierler’s proposal for appointing the advisory committee and said that “at this point, we’re still gathering names of those who have shown an interest in participating.”
Zierler went on to say that in his experience, “no matter how hard you try, people often don’t participate until you are about to finish the process. What are you going to do to engage the public as early on in the process as possible? Without that engagement from a broad spectrum I have a hard time seeing how this will work.”
Fairweather pointed to the interactive website they set up, as well as the many public meetings scheduled and said that his hope is for the steering committee and the advisory committee to engage the public to the greatest extent they can.
“I was at the last working group meeting, the first one where the public was allowed in,” Brittany Turner said. “I think it would be helpful if you allowed public comment at all of your meetings so that stakeholders can participate and provide their input before decisions, like your advisory committee appointments, are made.”
She went on to say that in her estimation there are “decisions being considered that would be directly impacted by this project. The creation of a fire district is being considered, the town’s master plan … why are we moving forward on these things while this group is looking at ways to make government more efficient?”
Rhoads said that Turner “makes a great point. Should we consider putting a moratorium on things that fall under the scope of this study?”
“I know we can’t tell the town and village to stop doing anything or make decisions, but it makes no sense to have these discussions going on separately,” Turner added.
“This process is really a conversation,” said Fairweather. “And what’s happening tonight is great. It’s the beginning of the conversation. The more dialogue we have and the more people that are engaged the better the outcome will be.”
With that, those present were asked to break up into small groups and list their concerns and hopes for the project. The concerns overlapped with each group and pointed to the “need to engage the public” early on in the process and engage a diverse group of stakeholders.
They also expressed concern that people remain as “open” and “objective” as possible.
Several groups expressed a hope that any outcome chosen would reduce property taxes, improve the “effective and efficient distribution of municipal services,” and solidify the community, its sense of character and morale -- which some feel have been damaged of late, particularly in the village.
The website is www.newpaltz.ning.com. The next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 9 at 9 a.m. at the New Paltz Town Hall off of Route 32.