BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Orangetown voters will apparently decide this fall whether to retain the position of Receiver of Taxes or merge it into some other office of town government four years later.
This issue had been discussed on and off throughout last year, but was never resolved by the five-member Town Board, which administers local government in Orangetown.
New York State law mandates what positions must exist in each township, and which ones must be elected by the general public and which can be appointed. For Town Boards, for example, the law requires five members, one being the supervisor. For second-class towns, of which there are none in Rockland because they all exceed the maximum size of 10,000 residents, two council members are elected at large and the other two are appointed, by virtue of having been separately elected as justices of the peace. Stony Point was the last second-class town in Rockland, having graduated to first class nearly 50 years ago.
In first class towns, with over 10,000 residents, all four council members must be elected at large, for four-year terms. Supervisors, who can be part-time but who all serve full-time in Rockland, are elected for only two-year terms.
The law also requires four other town officials to be publicly elected, the town clerk, the highway superintendent, the receiver of taxes and any town justices. Each is elected for a four-year term.
Each town must also have at least two justices, but can create additional positions if the number of tickets and cases the judges hear warrants it. In Rockland, Orangetown, Haverstraw and Stony Point have the minimum two judges, while Clarkstown has four and Ramapo has three.
In an effort to save money, some towns have chosen to eliminate some elected positions, and combine their responsibilities within other departments of town government.
Clarkstown residents approved the abolishment of the receiver of taxes position last year, for example, but rejected a similar move for the highway superintendent’s job. Clarkstown’s incumbent tax receiver, Loretta Raimone, will thus be out of work when her current term expires, this Dec. 31. The duties of her office are to be absorbed the next day by the Town Clerk’s office.
Orangetown now wants to move in the same direction. All five members of the Town Board seem to be in agreement that the receiver of taxes position can be eliminated to save money, including Democratic Supervisor Andrew Stewart and Republican Councilmen Denis Troy, Thomas Morr, Thomas Diviny and Paul Valentine.
They have even enlisted the support of the long-term incumbent receiver, Robert Simon, who told the council Tuesday evening that he would both endorse the move, and spend the next four years preparing for the actual transfer of responsibilities to a new office.
The only glitch he sees, and it is a concern shared by council members, is that no one has yet decided just which office will assume those responsibilities.
Councilman Morr broached the subject Tuesday when he expressed frustration that last year’s informal discussions had never been solidified, but instead were left “hanging” without resolution.
He pressed his fellow board members to start thinking about taking quick action, in order to get the required public referendum on this November’s ballot. A cost-benefit analysis will have to be performed and the results made public so that voters will have a basis on which to cast their ballots for or against the job abolition, Morr asserted.
Such a study would reveal whether incumbent Simon will retain a position similar to his current one, but within another department, or will be terminated, and whether his two clerks will likewise be transferred or terminated.
And while Clarkstown decided to merge the receiver’s duties into the town clerk’s office, Orangetown has made no such decision yet. Board members said they are considering a transfer to either the clerk’s office, or the tax assessor’s office, or even to an outside private firm on a contract basis, but haven’t yet had time to study the pros and cons of either move. Nor have they discussed such a move with incumbent Town Clerk Charlotte Madigan or Tax Receiver Brian Kenney.
Neither Kenney nor Mrs. Madigan were present at Tuesday nights meeting, and neither have expressed a public viewpoint on the possible transfer.
Kenney’s office establishes assessments on every property in Orangetown every year, and turns over that assessment roll each fall to Simon’s office. Simon then in turn establishes actual taxes on each of the properties, based the total budget for the coming year as established by the Town Board each November.
The Town Clerk’s office is not currently involved in taxes in any way. It records town board meetings, issues permits and licenses, and records vital statistics such as births, deaths and marriages.
Timing seems to no longer be a crucial element of the debate. Had the town board placed the elimination of the receiver’s position on the ballot last year, and had the voters subsequently approved it, it could have taken effect this fall, when Simon’s current four-year term of office ends. He would have been ineligible to run for re-election, since the position would no longer exist, and the transfer would have taken place last month.
Because Simon’s position expires Dec.31, however, he has already announced he will be seeking re-election to another four-year term this November. And Simon, a Republican, is also already being challenged by a Democratic contender for the position, Chris Smith, assuring a contest this fall on the ballot.
If the council eventually makes a decision to abolish the position this year, with sufficient lead time, that proposition can be placed on this fall’s ballot as well, for the voters to cast ballots for or against the concept.
But since voters will select a candidate for the position, for another four years, approval of the referendum would not become effective until after those four years, or Dec. 31, 2017. That assures that whoever wins the election this fall will get to serve the full four years, unless they voluntarily resign.
And if voters defeat the referendum, nothing at all will change.
Simon, who has held the receiver’s position for more than a decade, told the council Tuesday that he will support passage of a referendum abolishing his job if the council so decides. He called it a “logical cost cutting move” that will save taxpayers money. His competitor Chris Smith has made support for abolishing the position a central plank of his campaign so far.
Simon is a life-long Pearl River resident who has been active in the Republican Party for decades. He served as chairman of the town GOP committee and president of the Pearl River – Nauraushaun Republican Club, and has been active in both Rotary and the Lions Clubs, as well as the Pearl River Cemetery Committee, the Pearl River Parks Advisory and Traffic Advisory and Parking Committees, the Orangetown Bicentennial and Tri-centennial Committees and the board of directors of the Friends of the Orangetown Museum and Archives, among other community activities.
Council members have said they are interested in studying three options to the existing tax receiver’s office.
They would include transferring the responsibilities, and possibly some current staff, to either the town clerk’s office or the assessor’s office. A third option would be to outsource the duties by hiring a private firm to perform the tax billing, on a contract basis, if vendors can be found who are willing to submit price quotations for the board’s deliberations.
Despite pressure by Morr to get started on such a study, other board members gave no indication on when they might act.
A brief discussion was held at the same board meeting about the potential fate of a historic house the town owns, but for which it no longer has a need. Town Historian Mary Cardenas was the only person to appear before the council, urging them to consider preserving the house rather than demolishing it.
The house in question is the 1812 John Perry House on Blue Hill Road, at the entrance to the town owned and operated Blue Hill Golf Course.
Formerly the home of golf course creator M. Montgomery Maze, it has been owned by Orangetown since the town acquired the golf course in 1967. They have leased it ever since to pros and groundskeepers of the golf course, at reduced rent in exchange for providing 24/7 security and minor maintenance.
That ended last year with the death of the most recent tenant, and the house has remained vacant ever since. Town officials say it is unlikely they can rent it to anyone else because of its deteriorated condition, which will require extensive renovation. An estimate prepared a decade ago showed it would cost $100,000 to demolish and $150,000 to upgrade and modernize for suitable habitation. The rehabilitation never took place, and only minor patches and repairs have been made since then.
The board is now considering either demolishing the house, or restoring it, but for a use they have yet to determine.
A large frame house, it contains 16 rooms on two levels. It was built in the Dutch “gambrel roof” style popular in Rockland and Bergen Counties in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Most homes of that period were constructed of native red sandstone, with many still surviving. Those built of wood usually caught fire from open fireplaces in each room and were thus destroyed many years ago, Mrs. Cardenas said, leaving the Perry house as one of the few surviving examples.
The board had said last week that they would begin soliciting comments from the public and interested parties as early as this week, to help them in their decision-making process. So far, Mrs. Cardenas is the only one to bring the dilemma public, urging the board to consider restoration for a useful purpose before deciding to demolish the ancient structure.
In other business at Tuesday night’s meeting, the council honored three long-term members of the town’s Substance Abuse Committee for their decade of service to the town’s troubled youth.
Receiving the awards, in the form of engraved plaques and council plaudits, were Orangetown Police Captain Donald Butterworth, Pearl River High School Principal William Ferdon and Orangetown Councilman Denis Troy.
Committee Chairman Ed O’Dea and Vice Chairwoman Ann Marie Hahr presented the plaques, and credited the three men will revitalizing the moribund group in 1970, after it had become inactive for several years due to a lack of funding and community interest.
The committee has partnered with the Rockland County District Attorney’s office, the SOCASA organization and several other agencies recently, and is now an active force in combating substance abuse throughout Orangetown. While prescription drug abuse is surging throughout the region, O’Dea noted, Orangetown did not suffer a single death from such an overdose last year, a first in nearly a decade.
He also noted that the committee has recently created a text message line on which teenagers, their worried parents or friends and neighbors, can call and text a message warning of a suspected situation occurring within Orangetown. The messages can be left anonymously, but will definitely be investigated and responded to, O’Dea said. The number to report such text messages is 845-826-4026.
O’Dea also announced that Feb. 27 has been designated as “Take Back Day” in Rockland County, in which residents are urged to clean out their medicine cabinets of old and unneeded medicines and bring them to a designated drop off point, where they will be collected and destroyed to avoid falling into the hands of experimenting teenagers.
Troy, in accepting his plaque, said he knew nothing about drug abuse when he was appointed as liaison to the committee in 1970, when he was first elected to the Town Board. One of his first acts was to resurrect the committee, which had been moribund for at least two years, Troy recounted, and his most successful venture was persuading both O’Dea and Hahr to join the committee, which they have been leading ever since.
O’Dea is a retired New York City police officer and Hahr is a local realtor who served as assistant to the supervisor under the prior administration of Paul Whelan.
The only people to comment from the audience besides Mrs. Cardenas were Palisades resident and former Councilwoman Eileen Larkin and Blauvelt resident Watson Morgan.
Mrs. Larkin told the board that the town’s two golf courses, Blue Hill and Broadacres, were not “assets” to the town at all, as officials have stated, but rather were financial disasters draining town coffers and taxpayers wallets.
The town only has to provide police protection, maintain the streets and the sewer system, Mrs. Larkin told the board, asserting that public golf is neither a right nor a responsibility of government. If residents want to play golf, they should join a private club, and not expect taxpayers to subsidize it through higher taxes, she asserted.
The town should either raise the playing rates so the courses either make a profit or at least break even, or they should be sold, Mrs. Larkin continued, noting that both courses lose a substantial amount of money each year, and town can no longer afford to subsidize them.
She also said she was shocked to hear from former Councilwoman and currently County Legislator Nancy Low Hogan recently that Rockland County has 350,000 residents, of whom 55,000 are on Medicaid, and most of them live in Nyack, Spring Valley and Monsey. She called the figures “a disgrace” and said it was part of what was leading the town and the county into bankruptcy.
Morgan criticized the council for not having been pro-active last year in trying to protect a large wooded lot on Clausland Mountain that is surrounded by parkland. The Schuyler Road subdivision in Blauvelt sits bordered by town, county and state parkland, and should have been preserved as such rather than subdivided by a private developer who wants to construct “McMansions” there, Morgan asserted.
Instead, both the town and county planning boards approved the subdivision plan with little or no public notification as to what was going on, he added. The first indication he had that the proposal had been approved was when he saw an item on Tuesday’s agenda to “receive and file” the approval papers in the town clerk’s office.
Both the town and the county should have moved to acquire the property and add it to existing parkland on the mountain, Morgan suggested, calling the move a dereliction of duty on both the town and county’s part. Council members did not respond to either Morgan or Mrs. Larkin, and thanked Mrs. Cardenas for her offer to assist them in analyzing what to do with the historic Perry house.
In Other Action
In other business, the council also voted to:
Finally, the board decided to postpone naming residents to serve on various citizens advisory committees, after Supervisor Andy Stewart said names were still being submitted and reviewed by his office. If a final list can be compiled in time, it will be presented to the board for approval at the next meeting of the council, Stewart said.