Orangetown Election Lacks Issues Two Debates Described as “Love Fests”

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

Two debates were held recently for candidates vying for election in the Town of Orangetown next week and neither event generated any sparks.

Voting is being held throughout Orangetown next Tuesday, Nov. 5, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. in polling places scattered throughout the town’s five hamlets and four incorporated villages.

The debates were sponsored by the Tappan Volunteer Fire Association, in its own firehouse in that hamlet center, and by Our Town newspaper at the Town Hall board meeting room in Orangeburg.

Things appear to be running so smoothly in Orangetown that three candidates seeking re-election don’t even have challengers this year: Town Clerk Charlotte Madigan (D-Pearl River), Town Justice Richard Finning (R-Blauvelt) and Highway Superintendent James Dean (R-Pearl River). The three candidates nevertheless appeared at the debates and presented their qualifications for re-election, along with those seeking contested positions.

Both debates drew large crowds but neither resulted in any serious disagreements, regardless of how hard the moderators tried to stir up a little interest by asking seemingly provocative questions at times. Spectators at both sessions described them as being closer to “love fests” than “debates.”

GOP Dominates

The Republican Party has dominated politics in Orangetown for the past century or more, with only two Democratic upsets in recent history in which that party took brief control of the five-member Town Council for two-year stints.

The current elected administration in Orangetown, with about 47,000 residents, includes six Republicans and two Democrats, Supervisor Andrew Stewart and Mrs. Madigan. Both are seeking re-election this year, Stewart for a second two-year term and Mrs. Madigan for a fifth four-year term. Madigan, a popular vote getter, often runs unopposed but has also frequently been criticized by committee members from her own Democratic party for the “treason” of accepting Republican and Conservative cross endorsement. This year she is running on every ballot line in Orangetown, and shrugs off the intra-party criticism as “sour grapes.”

The current Town Board consists of one Democrat (Stewart) and four Republicans (Denis Troy, Thomas Diviny, Thomas Morr and Paul Valentine), giving the GOP 4-1 control of the governing council. All other elected officials in Orangetown are Republicans with the exception of Mrs. Madigan, who is a Democrat but is running on all four lines this year, with no opposition.

Taxes, RPC & Golf

All of the candidates seemed to agree at the two debates that the three primary issues in Orangetown are taxes, the future of the sprawling Rockland Psychiatric Center campus in Orangeburg and the future of the financially plagued Broadacres Golf Course.

Candidates from both parties pledged to try and keep taxes below a 2% tax increase next year, to avoid violating a state law that forbids municipalities from exceeding that limit unless they vote to exceed it beforehand, alerting the public to the pending increase. If a town or other governmental jurisdiction does exceed the 2% cap, it must pay a steep fine to the state. The only way to avoid the fine is to keep taxes below the 2% increase, or hold the public vote to exceed it.

So far only Stewart has proposed passing a resolution to allow the increase, with the Republican majority refusing to support it. Stewart has said he wants it as a safety measure, so the town won’t face the fine if it is forced to raise taxes, while Republicans have countered that they intend to keep slashing the proposed 2014 town budget to keep taxes level.

So far, next year’s budget is pegged at $67.7 million requiring a tax hike of 1.9%, just $15,000 below the 2% increase cap.

Orangetown purchased most of the vacant RPC campus from New York State a decade ago and has been trying to figure out how to redevelop it ever since. More recently, it has been trying to buy more of the former psychiatric hospital campus, including the adjacent Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center and several smaller parcels within the main campus that were excluded from the original sale.

Backgrounds

All of the candidates introduced themselves at the two debates by giving brief biographies of themselves.

Stewart is a two-year incumbent as supervisor, and is seeking his second term in office. Raised in New Hampshire, he spent 10 years as executive director of Keep Rockland Beautiful before winning his first election as supervisor in Nov. 2011. Married with children, he and his family have resided in Orangetown for 18 years. Trained in park management, he said he took over KRB in its infancy and guided it from a volunteer organization to a professional service agency dedicated to maintaining Rockland’s natural heritage and beauty.

Stewart said he served on Orangetown’s Planning Board and became friends with highway superintendent Dean, whom he called “a great teacher and guide,” who assisted him in many early projects in the township. He said his major goals are avoiding overdevelopment in Orangetown and guiding the town’s effort at redeveloping the RPC campus into an attractive asset.

He said he is pleased that in his first term in office he was able to bring completion to a Stop and Shop supermarket at a polluted site in Orangeburg and two motels at the same site that should be completed soon. He said he is also pleased to have hired to excellent staff members, Jeff Bencik as finance director and Alan Ryff as administrative assistant. Stewart also praised the recent televising of all Town Board meetings, the town’s recent attraction of several new data centers, fighting a proposal by United Water to construct a desalination plant in Haverstraw and the town’s constant struggle against overdevelopment.

Walter Wettje is Stewart’s Republican opponent. Born in the Bronx he moved to Bardonia as a teenager and then to Pearl River in 1983, where he has resided ever since. A graduate of Manhattan College, Wettje has been involved in private business in an executive capacity all his life, including serving as a top executive at Verizon Corporation before retiring recently. He said he feels his business experience and financial acumen are just what Orangetown needs, and he is looking forward to the challenges the position offers.

Q & A

The candidates were asked a series of questions by moderators and audience members, including the following:

Views on the 2% budget cap: Stewart said he supports it as a goal, and that he reduced the town’s initial budget for next year by eight percent to achieve that goal, using $3.5 million from the town’s reserve fund. Wettje also supports the same goal, but said the reduction in the reserve fund left it “dangerously low.” He said he would prefer going through the entire budget line by line to find other items to reduce as well.

Are people being taxed out of Orangetown, and if so, how to avoid it? Wettje said Orangetown remains an affordable place to live, and he will fight to keep it that way. Stewart said some are leaving Orangetown for financial reasons, but others are moving in to take their place, keeping the town stable.

How should the RPC campus be redeveloped? Stewart said the town has a five-year plan for this project, which he endorses. Part of that plan includes generating economic development on parts of the site, not financially burdening the Pearl River School District with additional children and reduced tax revenue, not overburdening the local road system and creating a waterfront part on the portion fronting the Lake Tappan Reservoir. Wettje said Orangetown has “sat” on RPC for a decade, and should “just get it done” instead of conducting endless studies. The town should “set goals and targets,” Wettje said, and then move toward them with all deliberate speed.

What is “green infrastructure,” and does it play a role in Orangetown? Wettje said he was involved in this with Verizon and its data centers, and it should be made a component of all new development in Orangetown. Stewart agreed, adding that it also includes holding water in place to avoid flooding. He praised its use in the new data centers, and said this should be expanded to all new development in the town.

Broadacres

What should be done with the money-losing Broadacres Golf Course?  Stewart called it a very important issue, and has proposed closing the course next year and either selling or leasing it to private operators to try and recoup some of its loss. He said the town’s two courses, Broadacres and Blue Hill, have lost $4 million over the past decade, and the trend must be reversed as quickly as possible. Wettje claimed Broadacres is starting to turn around financially and its future should be studied more thoroughly before deciding to suddenly close it with no future planning. He called for studies and a thorough analysis of why the two courses lose money, and how to reverse that trend and turn them into sources of both revenue and pride.

Stewart also explained that the annual deficit at Broadacres is now about $300,000, and

the mortgage for purchasing it from the state is still being paid off. All of the RPC campus should be considered available for sale, including the golf course, the supervisor said. Even though this is an “uncomfortable” position, he claimed it is necessary to get the best bids for the property from interested developers. He added that the nearby 27-hole Blue Hill Golf Course remains the town’s “premier” facility, and should be turned into a profitable venture rather than constantly worrying about the 9-hole Broadacres course.

Stewart also noted the town has recently been advised that New York State has approved the town’s “alienation” of Broadacres as official parkland, making it mush easier to sell and much more desirable for other uses. To achieve the alienation, Orangetown had to pledge to replace its acreage with other parkland nearby, and is so far leaning toward designating a vacant portion of the RPC campus bordering the Lake Tappan reservoir as the new town park.

Wettje concluded by saying he favors reducing the budget but not closing Broadacres. He added that he does believe the course should be at least self-sufficient if not actually profitable, but would give it more time to reach that status. Two ways of achieving this might to be to combine jobs at the two golf courses, which are nearby, and reviewing the expenses at each course.

More Questions

Can the town amortize pensions of retirees to reduce costs and use more reserve funds to reduce the budget? Stewart said amortization should only be used if and when it makes financial sense, and only rarely rather than on an annual basis. It should only be used when “absolutely necessary,” the supervisor said, adding that he wants to avoid any further job cuts if possible by finding other ways of reducing the town budget next year and in the future. Wettje agreed with the “rare” use of pension amortization, saying it should only be used “when absolutely necessary and financially advantageous.”

How can Orangetown attract new economic development? Wettje urged soliciting more small businesses, more data centers, revitalize the various hamlet centers in Pearl River, Blauvelt, Orangeburg, Tappan, Sparkill and Palisades and concentrate on attracting “clean” ratables. Stewart said the town should also streamline its application process for potential developers so it takes months instead of years to buy property and obtain necessary development rights and permits. Making Orangetown attractive and friendly to developers can assure the town’s economic future, Stewart asserted.

The two candidates were also asked individual questions, with Wettje queried whether he could cut jobs at town hall after being endorsed by several unions and Stewart asked for his three biggest mistakes in his first term in office.

Wettje said any job cuts will be a joint decision between the town board and the unions, and will only be sought “if absolutely necessary.” He said he hopes to avid layoffs by cost cutting in other areas of the budget. Stewart said he could only recall making one mistake and that was going along with Troy’s motion to move town board meetings from Monday to Tuesday evenings. Looking back, he would rather be able to attend county legislative meetings Tuesdays to advocate for Orangetown interests, but can’t because of the date conflicts, he explained.

Should the town have binding arbitration with its police union on new contracts as a way of saving money? Wettje said he favors this concept to help keep costs down, while Stewart said the entire negotiating system needs reform. Binding arbitration compares Orangetown’s police salaries to those of surrounding towns, and places the town at a distinct disadvantage, Stewart claimed. He said he favors some new method of negotiating for police contracts, adding that he voted against the most recent such contract, for financial reasons, which the GOP council approved it anyway.

Should Orangetown support or oppose United Water’s proposal to construct a desalination plant for Rockland County in Haverstraw? Both candidates expressed strong opposition to the plant, with Stewart calling it “too expensive,” “not needed” and claiming it would lead to giant rate increases for Rockland residents, while Wettje called for an “issues conference” on the topic as quickly as possible.

Council Race

In the race for Town Board, Republican incumbents Troy and Diviny are being challenged by Democrats Daniel Salmon and Ann Marie Uhl. Depending on who wins for supervisor and council, the political composition of the five-member board could range next year from 5-0 Republican to 3-2 Democratic, and anything in between.

Troy is a 14-year incumbent, having served previously on the Rockland County Legislature. A Bronx native and long-time Pearl River resident, he retired as a telephone executive and is now Rockland County’s data manager. He said he is proud of his many community involvements in non-profit agencies and organizations such as Little League, St. Margaret’s CYO and the Hibernians and considers the most important issue in town to be the future re-development of the RPC campus. His proudest moment on the Town Board was voting to purchase the site from New York State a decade ago, Troy said, and he eagerly looks forward to its eventual re-development. Other top Troy issues include attracting new tax ratables, improving the Route 303 corridor, lowering property taxes and improving the town’s appearance.

Diviny, a Pearl River attorney in private practice, has been on the council for one four-year term and is seeking re-election. A lifelong Orangetown resident, he said he is proudest of negotiating O & R power line installations to bring a Verizon data center to Orangeburg, luring Stop & Shop to a long vacant lot in Orangeburg, keeping taxes below the 2% cap, getting an Orangetown police officer assigned the federal DEA task force in return for which the town is now receiving substantial fine income, and working closely on redevelopment of the RPC campus to bring Orangetown additional ratables.

Salmon is a 35-year resident of Orangetown and a business executive who has watched his three children succeed through the South Orangetown schools and on to college and successful careers. He is active in the community through Jawanio (30 years), the Girl Scouts, Challenger Little League and a new adult league, the Rockland County Human Rights Commission, Blue Hill Golf Course Advisory Committee and a 20-year riding member of the South Orangetown Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

Uhl is a 15-year resident of Sparkill and Blauvelt and a member of the South Orangetown School Board. A retired high school teacher, she is a past president of the South Orangetown PTA and the Orangetown Youth Recreation League and is a member of the Nyack YMCA and several other local groups.

Council Q & A

The council candidates were asked several questions, including the following:

What are the two biggest issues in Orangetown? Uhl listed taxes and the re-development of the RPC campus, Salmon said financial stability as well as RPC re-development, Diviny sited re-development of the RPC and Pfizer properties and keeping taxes level while Troy listed keeping Orangetown affordable with a quality lifestyle, re-development of Pfizer and RPC and keeping taxes below the 2% cap.

Why did the Town abolish the local development board for the re-development of the RPC campus? Troy said the council felt it was no longer needed, but could be resurrected at any time if so desired, while Diviny claimed he favored its abolition, feeling the Town Board itself should make all decisions regarding RPC, not some independent agency. Salmon and Uhl both agreed with Diviny and said they would not push for the board’s re-creation.

Is Orangetown susceptible to overdevelopment, and how can it be avoided? Diviny said the town needs conservative land use policies and practices, appoint land use board members who agree with that philosophy, be eternally vigilant, issue very few land use change permits “and only for the best of reasons,” and work against residential overdevelopment. Salmon recommended using very conservative zoning practices and policies, Uhl agreed with both men and added a desire for a strong RPC re-development plan while Diviny stressed not allowing any high density housing at the RPC campus, and “no overdevelopment of any kind.”

When should the Town Board meet? Salmon and Uhl both favored returning to Monday evenings, Diviny said it didn’t matter to him because all nights have conflicts with other meetings and Troy said he likes the current Tuesday evening sessions.

How should the town deal with flooding and drainage issues? Uhl urged saying on top of all flood zones, drainage and other infrastructure systems to avoid “issues arising,” and generating a list of infrastructure needs. Salmon recommended seeking state and federal grants to remedy such problems; Diviny called it a joint town, state and federal problem in which Orangetown has already taken the lead in repairing several roads, dams, streams and ponds, and Troy concluding that the town must continue its conservative development policies, adding that the town already took the lead in repairing several stream bridges and upgrading streams throughout the town such as the Cherry Brook, Pearl River, Sparkill, Nyack, Nauraushaun and others.

 

Pensions Again

Should employee pensions be amortized? Troy said the town amortized the CSEA pensions last year, but cautioned that this can only be used rarely and not in quick succession because it can be dangerous in future years. He said the town has a reserve fund of 16% and only needs 10-12%, so money can be taken from that account in preference to another amortization at this time. Diviny agreed, noting the amortized salaries eventually have to be paid off, which can wallop the town when it least expects the added expense. Salmon also agreed calling it “OK once in a while,” but differed with Troy on the reserve account, claiming the town has used $11.25 million of reserves in the past four years and can’t afford any more rains on that budget line. Uhl also centered on the reserve account, saying the town can’t keep taking from it without ending up in financial trouble. It can only be done occasionally and wisely, she cautioned.

Workforce housing was a controversial issue years ago. Is Orangetown still affordable or should it consider re-adopting the workforce housing concept? Salmon claimed Orangetown is not affordable but claimed workforce housing would be counterproductive because it is dangerous. He said the Town Board must reduce spending to get the town affordable again and should also encourage building of “affordable” housing for volunteer firefighters, ambulance corps members and similar residents. Uhl was similarly opposed to workforce housing but said taxes must be controlled and even reduced if possible. She urged prevention of overdevelopment as the key while Diviny and Troy similarly came out against workforce housing in Orangetown. Diviny claimed it was used in Nyack to the village’s detriment. He and Troy also strongly supported the construction of more “affordable” housing for local volunteers, saying the town’s entrance into that field on Blasdell Road in Orangeburg has been a tremendous success, and should be replicated.

Budgets/Taxes

What should be done about budgets and taxes? Diviny said each department head in town government must produce an annual budget, and must defend that budget before the town board. In reviewing those requests, he said the council must reduce them wherever possible by delaying expenses and cutting costs. He added that the board successfully got the CSEA to accept a zero pay increase twice, and should continue stressing that with both town unions every year. Troy added that the department heads requested a 13% increase for next year, and the council has already trimmed that to 1.9%, and is continuing its scrutiny to cut it even more. Salmon said he’d begin the budget process the first week in January instead of late July and would use zero based budgeting rather than just adding onto this year’s amount. Uhl said she’d insist all department heads must submit a budget total that is no more than two percent higher than this year, rather than leaving it to their own discretion.

What are viable solutions to the RPC campus dilemma? Troy said he was proud the town board partnered with an Albany law firm to get the re-development project finally moving forward. Continued problems are Staff Court, what to do with the numerous contaminated buildings, and the future of the adjacent children’s hospital, but Troy said he is now confident progress will be visible in the next two years. Salmon said RPC was the largest parcel of available land within 20 miles of New York City, and thus prime for re-development. A new developer with “a great degree of creativity” must be found for much of the site, Salmon added, noting the property has already “languished” for 10 years. Diviny said RPC was one reason he ran for the council four years ago, and it is still his top priority. A key issue for him is what to do with 80 large old buildings filled with asbestos and lead. He agreed with Troy that the partnership with Wilson-Elsner is a key component, and expressed the hope they will assist the town in getting lots of help from various New York State agencies in improving and marketing the site. The current town board has let it be known that it will not entertain any high density housing proposals for the site, but is open to almost all other offers for re-use. The town must also work quickly to gain total control over the entire hospital site, Diviny said, concluding that Orangetown can’t afford to lose control over any portion again, following earlier failed ventures. Uhl concluded that the question is not whether to develop the site or not, “We must develop it,” but how to accomplish that in the most productive and beneficial way. She urged studying how North Rockland is re-developing the former Letchworth Village campus they purchased several years ago, and borrowing from their successes.

Should Orangetown merger its sewer department with that of Rockland County? Diviny said he met with county officials to study the matter and learned there would be zero savings for Orangetown from such a merger, even though their two treatment plants are next door to each other in Orangeburg. As a result, he opposes a merger as does Troy, who said he also opposed it 14 years ago when it was first proposed by then supervisor Thom Kleiner.  Orangetown must never lose control of its own sewers, Troy insisted, a sentiment that both Uhl and Salmon quickly endorsed, leaving the feeling unanimous.

Building Repairs

Should deteriorated town buildings be repaired or replaced? Salmon acknowledged Town Hall and other structures are deteriorating and need repairs, but said he favored a study aimed at moving all town offices to a single structure at the RPC campus, such as the former children’s hospital, and then selling the current town offices. Diviny and Troy agreed with consolidating all town offices at RPC, and selling existing builders to help recover the cost. Uhl was the most cautious, saying the town should explore other options before pouring more money into repairing existing town structures, but adding she wanted to see the results of the study before making a final decision on what to do, repair or move.

Who pays the electrical bills for lighting the athletic fields of private groups using town property? Only incumbents Troy and Diviny responded, with Troy saying Orangetown paid to install the lights and operate them at Veterans Memorial Field, while independent leagues paid for the installation and operation of lights across the street, on former RPC property. Diviny added that the town charges more to colleges to use their fields at night than to other non-profit groups, because the colleges charge tuition and have substantial resources, while the youth and adult leagues do not. In addition, the leagues contribute to the maintenance and operation of the fields they use, while the colleges do not.

Tax Receiver

The only other race in Orangetown this year is for receiver of taxes, currently held by 16-year incumbent Republican Robert Simon, a lifelong Pearl River resident who is seeking re-election for another four-year term. He is opposed by Democrat Chris Smith, also a longtime Pearl River resident. Simon is a past master of the Pearl River Masonic lodge and past president of the Pearl River Rotary and several other local organizations. He was a local bank official when a merger eliminated his position, the same year Tax Receiver Eileen Bohner became ill and had to leave office. He was appointed by the Town Board to fill the vacancy and has held the job ever since, getting re-elected every four years. He has served several years on the towns’ parking advisory committee, traffic safety advisory board, Orangetown Museum board and other agencies, as well as several groups in Pearl River and Orangetown such as the Blauvelt Lions, Pearl River Cemetery Committee, Pearl River Methodist Church and others. Smith heads a public relations firm, which specializes in advising non-profit clubs and organizations.

Voters next week will cast ballots on whether or not to abolish the office of receiver of taxes and merge it into the town clerk’s office. If the referendum is approved by a majority of voters, the action will take place in four years, or Jan. 1, 2018, giving whoever is elected next week four years to accomplish the transition.

Both men say they support the referendum and feel the consolidation should occur, to save taxpayers money. Estimates on savings have ranged from $25,000 to $100,000, although no exact figures have been generated because it is not known if any existing staff would also be transferred along with the workload, or would all be terminated.

Simon had a staff of two full-time and two part-time clerks until recently, when one full timer was eliminated in budget cuts. The other was given a transfer last week to another department, leaving Simon with only two part-time clerks, hired only during tax collecting time from September through January. The Town Board has not yet indicated whether it will re-fill that position, or abolish it.

Simon has pledged to spend the next four years winding down his office responsibilities and training staff at the Town Clerk’s office on how to bill for and process tax receipts. He has said he hoped at least one clerk would be transferred, along with the responsibilities, to make the switch smoother. He would not be a candidate for transfer himself, he added, because he is eligible for retirement in four years and would opt for that instead.

Smith said he would reduce his own hours from full-time to half time during the transition to save the town money, and would also not be interested in continuing the job in the clerk’s office. He said the same transition has already been approved in Clarkstown, and will be accomplished in two months. He will closely observe Clarkstown’s transition and learn from their efforts, Smith said.

Simon explained that his office sends out 15,800 tax bills every September and January, and collects about $224 million in revenues annually. The taxes are then divided between the town, Rockland County, three local school districts and a host of libraries, ambulance corps and other “special districts” within Orangetown.

 

Other candidates

Questions were non-existent for Judge Richard Finning and Town Clerk Charlotte Madigan, who are running on all party ballot lines with no opposition.

James Dean is also seeking re-election as highway superintendent without opposition, but did manage to gather some inquiries from the generally appreciative audiences.

Should Orangetown maintain all roads within its borders, including county roads?  Dean said Rockland County has 36 miles of highways within Orangetown, and pays Orangetown to maintain 18 of them. The county highway department maintains the other 18 itself. The state has a similar arrangement with the town, Dean added.

It’s a good deal for Orangetown, Dean says, because the county and state pay more than it costs the town to plow and surface those roads. He nevertheless feels it would be more advantageous to the town to take over all roads within its jurisdiction, rather than the patchwork system now in use in which Orangetown, Rockland County and New York State all share responsibility for plowing and maintaining roads in Orangetown, and occasionally overlap.

Dean was less certain about bridges, noting that Orangetown is responsible for small ones and the county for larger ones. The county should remain responsible for repairing or replacing large bridges, he said, because the cost could overwhelm and bankrupt the town.

A 50-year veteran of the town highway department, Dean said he considers it the best such department in Rockland County and possibly New York State, because of the crew of long-time dedicated workers he has on his staff.

When is the town recycling center open, and why not every Saturday? Dean said the center, at the highway-sewer complex off Route 303 in Orangeburg, used to be open six days a week, including every Saturday, which was popular with homeowners. Because of budget cutbacks, however, it is now open only three days a week, including every other Saturday.

Homeowners and landscapers can bring leaves, grass clippings, branches, stones and household items there any time it is open, and dump at no cost. The town in turn recycles the material, either with the Rockland County recycling center in Ramapo or with private contractors, and makes a profit in the deal by charging for the refuse it generates.

Dean apologized for the reduction in operating hours, but said it was out of his control and dictated by the town board, which controls his departmental budget. To save money over the last couple of years, they have trimmed his budget for staff to maintain the operation, he said, in turn necessitating the curtailing of days and hours it can be open.

Neither Mrs. Madigan nor Judge Finning received any questions at either candidate’s night.