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Bedford Cuts Funding for Open-Space Buys

But the vote retains—at least for a year—a popular, decade-old land-acquisition program and bankrolls it with money on-hand, not tax collections.

Bedford will continue to fund an open-space acquisition program but at no immediate cost to taxpayers and with only a third of today’s spending, the town board voted Tuesday.

The board also agreed to ask residents next November whether the program, overwhelmingly approved in a 2000 referendum, should continue in leaner economic times.

In a concession to fiscal challenges already threatening to scuttle the decade-old program, the town’s open-space contribution will drop next year from about $500,000 to well under $200,000. And the money, previously generated by a 3 percent taxpayer surcharge on the general fund and highway budget, will come in this instance from the fund balance, a budget-reserve kitty.

The board’s unanimous vote followed a on a series of local laws to reduce or eliminate funding for the open-space program. Both hearings attracted a standing-room audience to Bedford’s town hall.

Speakers alternately hailed the open-space program as an important conservation tool and plus for property values or dismissed it as a luxury the town can ill-afford in a time of strained finances and threatened municipal layoffs. A shows three job cuts.

Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts acknowledged the town’s economic struggles, saying, “These are difficult financial times for Bedford and no one knows it more than this board.” But she insisted that now “is not the time to give up on our vision for our community.” Roberts said the preview budget’s proposed layoffs were unrelated to open-space funding.

The supervisor, unopposed in her re-election bid earlier this month, then proposed the reduced funding and suggested financing the 1 percent contribution with unspent dollars already in the town treasury.

Councilman Chris Burdick, , supported Roberts’ proposal, saying the fund reserve was meant to be a source of rainy-day money. “And boy,” he said, “do we have a rainy day.” Burdick also produced a check that represented his voluntary family contribution to the open-space fund. He suggested that others in the affluent town could make similar contributions to maintain robust land acquisitions in the face of tight finances and a state-mandated cap on property taxes.

Even at a full 3 percent, the open-space levy means a relatively modest tax bite of only $50 to $60 for average Bedford homeowner, town finance officials estimate. But the overall half-million-dollar-or-so annual contribution would count against a new state limit on the amount by which a town can raise property taxes. Councilman David Gabrielson, also returned to office on Election Day, said the tax cap had made the town board’s job “immeasurably more difficult.”

While the board, exercising an available option, voted to override the state limit, it also pledged to try to stay within the state’s 2 percent cap on increases in the property-tax levy. The board voted the override, Councilman Peter A. Chryssos said, because “we didn’t want somebody else telling us what to do.”

Under today’s circumstances, Chryssos dismissed as “immaterial” the open-space fund’s overwhelming public support in a referendum 10 years ago. Still, he called Roberts’ proposal a “good compromise” and called on residents to see “what we can all give up . . . to get through this difficult period of time.”

“It’s these difficult times that pit us against each other,” he said, an apparent reference to the jobs vs. land-acquisition divide evident in the public hearing.

But, Roberts said, Tuesday’s hearing was “not about jobs. . . . The question on the table is about open space and its importance to our community,” she said.

Councilman Francis T. Corcoran also rejected suggestions that land acquisition was an extravagance the town could not afford. “This has never been a luxury,” he said. “It’s about enhancing the value of the community. To me, it’s about economics.”

A Katonah resident and planning board member, Deirdre Courtney-Batson, rejected all-or-nothing solutions. Telling the board she had “voted for all of you,” Courtney-Batson warned, “Let me be blunt about this. . . . If you either cut jobs or completely eliminate the open-space fund in order to meet that cap, I will be sorely disillusioned and disappointed.” 

Joe Doakes November 16, 2011 at 04:19 PM
Sometimes I do not know where to begin with my reaction to these meetings, but I’ll have to soldier on. In fact, let me be blunt. I’m diametrically opposed to the open space fund. Every dollar, dime, and penny ought to be returned to the tax payers. If citizens like Mr. Burdick would like to create a private group of individuals to consolidate their resources to preserve land I’m cool with that. But to use public resources for some other purpose other than police, fire, water, or sewer, is insane. Especially when this water, if you can call it that, has destroyed so many of my faucets and shower heads I’m debating whether or not to send the town board the bill for them. Maybe Mr. Burdicks generosity would extend to my kitchen sink? As for Supervisor Roberts solution. I’m for it so long as this tremendous waste of taxpayer resources is put to the voters; the sooner the better. I love voting against dumb stuff. I only wish I could do it more than once.
Joe Doakes November 16, 2011 at 04:22 PM
(Continued from above) One citizen was quoted as saying this is about economics. I agree. The more open space we lock up, the less tax revenue that will come in and the less opportunity for job growth that will occur. More importantly than this is all of those business that line our beautiful streets will have less customers coming through the doors. Pardon me, but that sucks. Why would one want to punish those business in pursuit of a field that will only be used so the local deer population can have even more space to procreate! One of our primary goals should be to create opportunity for jobs and growth within our community. We can best provide the plumbing for that by using tax dollars wisely in that pursuit rather then chasing an environmental nirvana which will one day put us all in Four Winds as we twist ourselves into mental pretzels trying to explain to our children why we destroyed a community in search of this insanity.

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