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From the Mayor: Westchester Is Home to Many Luminaries PDF Print Email

Nov. 13, 2013:  In doing my research last week on Westchester County political offices, I had a wonderful moment of "accidental learning" as I stumbled upon articles about the county itself. We have a very interesting and storied home. 

From the historical perspective, Westchester was home to many luminaries. Before his rout at the Battle of White Plains in 1776, George Washington stayed at the Elijah Miller House, which still stands on Virginia Road in North White Plains, and when the yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia, our second president, John Adams, was forced to leave and came to live with his daughter on Route 22 in Mount Vernon. 

Founding Father John Jay was raised in Rye, matriculated at King's College (Columbia) at age 14, and went on to be governor, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and first chief justice of the Supreme Court before retiring to a homestead in Bedford.

After winning the popular vote but losing the presidential election of 1876 to Rutherford B. Hayes, Democratic New York Governor Samuel J. Tilden retired to a Yonkers estate, Greystone, a 30-room stone villa including the gardens of the now Untermyer Park. 

The third vice president, Aaron Burr, often tried cases at St. Paul's Church in Mount Vernon, and when colonel of the Continental Army, took command of the forces in White Plains.

Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune and the Republican Party as well as a presidential candidate against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, was a Chappaqua resident and has been immortalized as a namesake of a local high school. 

John Peter Zenger wrote an article about an Eastchester town election that heavily criticized the New York governor and resulted in a trial for "seditious libel."  The result in favor of Zenger led to the enshrining of freedom of the press in the Bill of Rights. 

In the more recent past, a Mount Vernon native, Lt. Ira Palm, led a raid on Adolph Hitler’s Munich apartment in 1945. Though Hitler was not there, Lt. Palm returned home with a gold-plated pistol bearing the letters AH. 

Among the county's many firsts include an elevator company, Otis, in Yonkers; the first self-made female millionaire, hair care maven Madame C. J. Walker of Irvington; America's oldest golf club, St. Andrew's, founded in 1899; and the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite, made in Yonkers. 

In 1912, an inquisitive college student from Yonkers, Edwin Armstrong, invented FM radio, and the year prior, a Dominican nun named Mother Mary Alphonsa founded the first home for terminal cancer patients. Born Rose Hawthorne, she was the daughter of American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, and when she opened a second home in Unionville, the town was renamed Hawthorne in her honor. 

Tuckahoe marble was used to build the New York Public Library, the Federal Reserve Bank in the Wall Street area, St. Patrick's Cathedral, the US Capitol, and the Washington Monument. Painter Norman Rockwell lived in New Rochelle from 1913 to 1939 and painted many of his famous Saturday Evening Post covers while in residence. 

Westchester's highest point at 982 feet is in Mountain Lake Park in North Salem, and our oldest building dates back to 1667 and is still in use as a library for the Rye Historical Society. Westchester is home to over 50 parks and 18,000 acres of green space, the largest being Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, five times the size of Central Park. 

On a less historical and rather fun bent, the Glen Island Harbour Club was built as a summer resort, and during the big-band era, the venue helped launch the careers of Les Brown, the Dorsey Brothers, and Glenn Miller. Its casino adjunct was closed in 1978. 

Howard Stern started his radio career as a disc jockey in Briarcliff Manor, and Beatles' wives Yoko Ono and Linda McCartney both lived in Scarsdale and attended Sarah Lawrence College. One of Scarsdale’s more infamous residents was FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who sold state secrets and began his treason while living in Scarsdale in the late 1970s. Aussie actor Mel Gibson was actually a Peekskill resident until the age of 12.   

A tunnel in the shuttered Memorial Field on Sanford Boulevard in Mount Vernon was used to film the iconic "Mean Joe Greene" Coke commercials so popular in the early 1980s. 

Even though we are home of the cocktail--because legend has it that American soldiers in Elmsford often stole tail feathers from Tory-owned chickens before heading to O'Brien's for a few beverages and the tavern's barmaid began to decorate the potables with the plumage thus birthing the cocktail--Crain's New York Business says we are New York's slimmest, fittest county for our low rates of obesity, inactivity, and diabetes. We truly live in a fascinating county!

 
From the Mayor: You May Have Colored in Your Paper Ballot Circles, But . . . PDF Print Email

Nov. 6, 2013:  As you read this, you may have just colored in your paper ballot circles for election for various county, town, and judicial offices as well as a record six New York State Constitutional Amendments.  (As a caution, the amendments were on the flip side of the absentee ballot and very easy to miss.)

As point of reference, the electronic scanner paper ballots are here to stay per New York State law. The only exception is the upcoming March village election, which qualified for a one-year extension on lever machine use. In 2010, New York actually became the last state to switch to electronic voting in compliance with federal law.

In my opinion, the "new" technology seems like a step backward from the admittedly 19th-century technology of the lever machine to a system that requires poll workers to copy voters' information by hand from one piece of paper to another.

Top on the ballot will be voting for a county executive of Westchester. Named after the City of Chester, England, Westchester was founded in 1683 and encompasses 500 square miles and 45 municipalities. According to the 2010 Census, Westchester has 949,113 residents, approximately 254,000 of which belong to the Democratic Party and 134,000 are registered Republicans. The office of county executive was created in 1937 when voters approved a new county charter giving Westchester County an executive branch to complement the legislative County Board of Legislators. Since its inception, the county executive seat has been held by eight men, six Republicans and two Democrats.

The county executive is elected at large in the general election held the year following the presidential election. The term of office is four years and no one can serve for more than three consecutive four-year terms. The current county executive's salary is $160,760. To run for the office, an individual has to be a citizen of the county for a minimum of five years prior. Compensation is fixed by the County Board of Legislators. 

The county executive is the chief executive and administrative officer of Westchester County and some of his/her main duties include the supervision of the administrative services and departments of the county, presentation of an annual budget to the county board, and communication of a general statement of the finances and affairs of county government to the county board at a minimum of once a year. The county executive does have a veto power as well as the right to appoint the head of every county department and office, subject to confirmation by the county board.

In a strange twist of fate, because many Westchester residents are choosing not to affiliate with either the Republican or Democratic parties, the Independence Party has taken on unprecedented influence. The party was first formed in the 1990s by Ross Perot and in New York, spearheaded by Tom Golisano. Though less than 4% of county voters belong to this party, many unaffiliated or independent voters think this is their line on which to vote. The small change in word ending from Independen(ce) to an independen(t) has translated into a party to be reckoned with.

Representing approximately 50,000 people in Bronxville and Yonkers, Bronxville's representative on the County Board of Elections is also up for election. A county legislator serves for a two-year term. A key power of the County Board concerns finances, appropriating funds, approving the budget, and levying taxes. The board has 17 members, 10 of which are Democrats and 7, Republicans.  The current base salary is $49,200.  

Currently, village taxpayers contribute $8,116,374 as our share of the county budget.

Next on the ballot for election is the county district attorney. Bronxville resident Janet DiFiore is running for her second four-year term and is unopposed.

County-wide voting requires the election of a county clerk. The duties of this office include managing all of the county land records, overseeing the licensing of plumbers and electricians, facilitating the passport application process, and naturalization of new citizens.

Continuing down the ballot will be the election of an Eastchester town supervisor. The office is up for election every two years with no term limits and a current salary of $98,093.

As chief executive officer of the town, the supervisor directs day-to-day operations and coordinates the activity of town department heads. The supervisor proposes policies and projects for consideration by the town board. As a town board member, the supervisor's vote has the same weight as those of the other four board members. The supervisor acts as treasurer of the town, works with the town budget officer to prepare the initial draft of the town budget, and is the only authorized signature for payroll and town checks.

Two town board seats are also up for election for a two-year term. The current representatives are running unopposed. 

Bronxville Village elections are the third Tuesday in March of 2014.

I urge all of you to exercise your right to vote, as turnout will be a huge factor in the final tallies.

 
From the Mayor: Crucial State Legislative Priorities for Local Governments in NY PDF Print Email

Oct. 30, 2013:  I have been asked to join a panel of New York State mayors to set the state legislative priorities for the upcoming legislative session for our parent organization, the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (NYCOM).

Though at times, I have felt it an exercise in futility of late due to inaction on the part of the legislature, the voice of those in the trenches is critical to the conversation.

Pension Reform:  Number one--pension reform--will always be the number-one priority because the current system is unsustainable and it is the single most expensive state mandate in terms of local property tax dollars.

Just since 2010, the average contribution rates charged to local governments have increased by 91% for police and fire personnel and 182% for non-uniformed staff.  These devastating increases have already led to property tax increases coupled with a diminution of local services and the work force necessary to deliver them.

In an effort to curry favor for his gubernatorial run, then New York State comptroller Carl McCall rescinded the small 3% contribution to the pension program by some state workers costing taxpayers billions of dollars in the years since that election. The 3% contribution for Tier 3 and 4 employees needs to be reinstated at a minimum while the entire system is overhauled. 

The state's current "defined benefit" system is virtually nonexistent in the private sector, and the average retirement benefit for retirees in New York State is more than twice the average company or union pension benefit.

There has been a perennial unwillingness for state elected officials to address the pension issue. In some cases, it is a fear of not being re-elected and not staying in office long enough to avail themselves of this same generous benefit.

I would argue that these legislators, because of their inaction, are the real enemies of the state worker. The system is simply unsustainable, and without changes the system will go bankrupt and then all is lost.

Unfunded Mandates:  State mayors are also united in supporting legislation to constitutionally prohibit the enactment of laws that impose an unfunded mandate or fiscal burden on local communities. 

All current unfunded mandates should also be required to sunset in two years unless it can be demonstrated that the mandate is essential and a funding source found to offset the cost to local governments. Currently, there are more than 200 state unfunded mandates.

One particularly onerous unfunded mandate is the Wicks Law, dating back to 1912 and affecting both village and school construction projects. Under the current law, separate plumbing, heating, electrical, etc.--virtually all contracts on a construction project--must be separately bid. The coordination issues involved often lead to costly delays, increased administration costs and lawsuits, raising the cost of projects anywhere from 8% to 30%.

Other smaller but costly mandates are found in the myriad of state tort laws. Their impact amplifies the financial exposure a local government faces from lawsuits and increases the incentive to commence frivolous lawsuits against municipalities. Under current state law, private defendants are allowed to offset the amount of any damage awards by the amount a plaintiff receives from collateral sources such as insurance. Municipal defendants do not receive the same benefit and in addition must pay interest on judgments at a rate of 9% regardless of the prevailing rate.

Gross Receipts Tax:  Because of the myriad of unfunded mandates, municipalities are desperate for additional sources of non-property tax revenue. NYCOM urges an increase in the rate and to expand the scope of the utility gross receipts tax (GRT). 

Currently, cities and villages have the option of imposing a GRT on the gross operating income of utility companies at a rate of 1%. Bronxville exercises this option. I along with my colleagues support a rate increase to 3% that is already enjoyed by Buffalo, Rochester, and Yonkers. 

Additionally, in recognition of the predominance of wireless technology and to achieve equity in the tax treatment for all telecommunication providers, cellular service should be subject to the local GRT. Both the state and New York City have already made changes to their respective statutes to include cellular service as taxable for the state's excise tax and New York City's gross receipts tax.

I am hopeful that some of the initiatives above can be accomplished via a true partnership between state and local governments, because one can certainly make the argument that local officials represent the biggest special interest group of all--the New York State taxpayers.

 
From the Mayor: Myriad of Projects; Some in Infancy, Others Reach Fruition PDF Print Email

Oct. 23, 2013: The trustees and I are working on a myriad of projects; some in infancy and others about to reach fruition.

Hydrant Maintenance Bill: Just this week, we received very good news that the hydrant maintenance bill that we have championed for several years with nine other communities was passed by both state houses and sits on the governor's desk for signature. If signed, the bill will allow our water company to spread the cost of hydrant maintenance over all water users instead of the responsibility placed solely on the village property taxpayers. The village will realize $130,000, equating to almost one and one half tax percentage points, if the law goes into effect.

Scout Field: Almost four years in the making, the County of Westchester and the Town of Eastchester agreed to contributing upgrades of over $800,000 to the Scout Field complex, with Eastchester taking a lead role in field scheduling. In the coming days, the Town of Eastchester and the Village of Bronxville will enter into an inter-municipal agreement delineating the field needs of The Bronxville School and in turn the responsibilities the school and the village will undertake as partners with the town. With the closing of the day camp, the village does not have any events on the field, but by law all agreements with the county and town on such usage must be between a government unit and a government unit and not a school district.

Parkway Road Bridge: We are still working with all the parties involved--the county, the City of Yonkers, the Town of Eastchester, and our village--to formulate an equitable distribution of the cost to repair the Parkway Road bridge. Our hope is that the responsibilities can be resolved without seeking legal review. Upon the request of neighbors, we did petition the state department of transportation to remove the large, unsightly signage. We ask for your patience as we find an equitable solution.

Phase II of Business District Revitalization: We are about to embark on Phase II of our downtown business district revitalization plan, which will be two-pronged at the outset. The experts are to offer us ideas/potential village code changes to streamline the business approval process while not sacrificing quality review. Our neighbors in Scarsdale recently accomplished this with much success. On a parallel path, a parking analysis will focus on identifying strategies to maximize existing parking resources through smart management of time intervals, pricing, location restrictions, etc., and evaluating the amount of needed future additional parking, especially in light of the increase in food and service businesses.

Village Website: At the October trustees' meeting, the village board approved a revamping of our village website to make it more informative and user friendly and to allow residents to access services from home.

Village Lighting: As fall is upon us and night comes earlier, we are very mindful of the need for enhanced village lighting. We will soon be embarking on a village-wide plan to increase and upgrade lighting throughout the village with an emphasis on energy efficiency. In the interim, we will soon be adding temporary additional lighting at the Park Place and Kraft Avenue intersections near Starbucks. We are vigilant in changing street light bulbs and if a light is out in front of your home for more than a few days, it is a Con Ed issue. We are efficient about alerting Con Ed to the problems but find the response time unacceptable. 

Metro-North Railroad: We also operate with a similar level of frustration with our other monopoly, Metro-North railroad. The condition of our underpass, which is a Metro-North responsibility, has deteriorated to beyond unattractive levels. Assured that there are no structural integrity issues, I have nonetheless sent photos of the underpass conditions to everyone I could think of at Metro-North. I await a response. In desperation in the past, the village has offered to step in on cosmetic repairs but was denied due to jurisdictional and liability issues.

Street Signs: In concert with our police department and department of public works, trustee Poorman and I have undertaken an effort to rid the village of duplicate, useless, faded, or damaged street signs. We have become numbed to the steady proliferation of signage, but a closer look at some of our poles will demonstrate the unattractiveness of sign pollution. If you notice a damaged or duplicate sign in your neighborhood, email me at CLOAKING  and we will add it to the list for removal or refurbishment.

Paddle Tennis Courts: In an effort to reintroduce our residents to our unique village asset--our paddle courts--we have lowered the cost of the resident permit to $100 individual/$150 family. Our hope is that more villagers, young and old, will take up what is a lifelong sport! Permits can be purchased at village hall from Monday through Friday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm or by mail. If you are also interested in serving on our village paddle committee, please volunteer by calling Karen Buccheri at 914-337-6500. 

 
From the Mayor: STAR (Property Tax Relief) Requires Registration by December 31 PDF Print Email

 

Oct. 16, 2013:  All New York State homeowners receiving the Basic STAR (School Property Tax Relief) tax exemption must now register with the New York State Tax Department in order to receive the STAR exemption in 2014 and going forward. Every current recipient will receive registration instructions by mail with a registration deadline of December 31, 2013.

Senior citizens receiving Enhanced STAR benefits are not affected by the new registration requirements. In order to continue to receive the Enhanced STAR, seniors must renew annually at village hall.

The Basic STAR tax exemption is available to all New York State citizens living in their owner-occupied primary residence where the adjusted gross income of the owner(s) and spouse(s) is less than $500,000.  Since the Village of Bronxville assesses at 100% of current fair market value, STAR exempts approximately $96,000 of the full value of a home from school taxes.

The Enhanced STAR provides a further benefit for senior citizens living in their primary and owner-occupied residence as long as the owner is 65 and over and has an income of $81,900 or less. 

For the upcoming 2013-2014 tax bills, the Enhanced STAR will exempt the first $203,310 of the full value of a home from school taxes.

Of the over 200 tax exemptions granted by the State of New York, STAR is the only one actually funded by the state. Called a tax cut when initiated as part of Governor Patacki's 1997-1998 budget, STAR is fundamentally a tax shift from residential homeowners to those property owners who are ineligible under the program, including renters, owners of industrial or commercial properties, and second and vacation homeowners.

Condominium and cooperative owners are eligible under STAR if a unit is their primary residence. Residents are required to apply individually in order to receive this exemption. Worried that STAR would encourage school districts to spend more, Governor Patacki included a school tax cap provision in the original legislation, but the legislature uncoupled the provisions and only passed the STAR exemption. The further Enhanced STAR was partially motivated to encourage senior citizens to support their local school budget votes.

At its inception in 1998, the program cost the state $582 million. In the 2010-11 budget, $3.2 billion was expended for STAR benefits to 3.4 million residents, making it the largest state exemption program by a wide margin.

STAR monies are sent directly to local school districts, thereby running counter to the distribution of most state education aid. Districts with the highest potential for financing public education also receive proportionately the most property tax relief under STAR. 

When traditional formulas are used, state education aid is targeted more heavily to low-wealth districts. STAR relief flows more towards wealthier communities because by design STAR concentrates its rewards in districts with high levels of homeownership.

As illustration, while approximately 70% of residents throughout New York State are homeowners, just 35% of New York City residents own their residences, making 65% of the city population ineligible for STAR.

While the STAR program remains immensely popular among state politicians in both parties, the new procedures are the result of conclusions in the audit of the program by the state attorney general this past February. The audit determined that fully 20% of those on the STAR program were ineligible for the benefits, translating into a loss of $13 million in state monies just this past year.

State officials agree that the data demonstrates rampant double-dipping and abuses. The two most pervasive problems are multiple property exemptions by one owner in New York and using two states as a "primary" residence. 

Local assessors simply lack the state database to find double-dippers. The problem is further exacerbated because the exemption does not have unique identifiers for tracking ease such as employed in Florida. It is hoped that the centralization of the STAR data will minimize the very large incidence of abuse that is costing taxpayers dearly.

For additional information, you can call 518-457-2036 or go to www.tax.ny.gov.    

 
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