Patch asked the three candidates for town board to answer a set of questions in order to inform readers their stance on relevant issues. Below is part two of our Q & A: Candidates discuss communications, sewers and open space.
For background on the three candidates, see our , where candidates discuss their backgrounds, the tax cap and term limits.
Responses have been edited for style and length but not for substance.
Patch: The town board was criticized by some for its communications response after Tropical Storm Irene. Do you think the board could have helped communications at all? What would you suggest in future emergency situations?
Burdick: Overall, I believe that the Town did a credible job, though we always can improve on what we do. To that end, the Town is reviewing how it responded to Irene and what could be done better. Clearly, if people do not have power, they cannot access e-mail alerts. So we need to do more to provide up to date information in a manner which can be accessed. One resident suggested that we post twice a day at each fire house a status report on the essential facts as to roads, power restoration, dry ice and other emergency services. We also need to be sure that NYSEG, early in the emergency, regularly posts and updates status. Assemblyman Castelli recently advised that the legislature is investigating NYSEG’s response to Irene. We will be closely reviewing and acting upon the results of our internal review and the legislature’s investigation.
Gabrielson: Many people without power found it hard to access the web, though the increased use of smart phones makes it easier for some to get e-mail and find sites like facebook or even the Patch. Irene was very disruptive and frustrating – we had something like 100 trees that took down power lines in Bedford alone, and the scope if damage clearly overwhelmed NYSEG and Con Ed. We need to do a better job communicating what we know and don’t, and where our residents can get things like dry ice, or showers, or water. It would be great to get input from the many community organizations and neighborhood groups about what specific things people would find helpful, and then make sure those things can be put in place if we have another Irene. I would be remiss in not applauding the great efforts of all of our Town employees in the aftermath of Irene.
Vander Linden: I think it’s unfair to judge the town’s communications as a whole based on one extraordinary event. Our full-time elected leaders, Supervisor Lee Roberts and Clerk Boo Fumagalli, did a terrific job running the town’s response in the days after Irene. I do think communication overall could be a lot better though. The town needs to collect and use more email addresses; it needs to avail itself of the many free or very low cost technology options to get the word out about everything from public hearings to emergency alerts; and the website needs a complete overhaul. Many times, people aren’t informed about things the town does. And there aren’t very good ways for them to communicate back. I’ve worked in communications for 18 years and I think we can do a lot better.
Patch: The town has long considered a move from a septic system to a sewer system. The costs of establishing a sewer system are staggering—how would you work to keep this project moving forward or do you favor an alternate solution?
Burdick: The Town Board is pursuing a two-track approach. We are continuing to consider a large municipal sewer system roughly encompassing the hamlets of Bedford Hills and Katonah. The second approach we are looking into are decentralized systems which would not require the massive outlay of expenditures (subject to a referendum) which the large system would entail. We are looking into a pilot project and would request Westchester County Board of Health waiver to allow for the application of advanced (proven) technologies for such a project.
Gabrielson: Several years ago, the Town developed an engineering plan to create a sewer system for portions of Bedford Hills and Katonah: acquire the Correctional Facilities plant, expand it, and then develop the pipes and pumping necessary to connect to it. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I believe that without substantial grants from sources unknown (particularly in this new era of austerity) the cost per homeowner would be prohibitive. People are none too pleased about the increased cost of new drinking water. These same customers would see substantially higher assessments for sewers, and would need to bare the individual cost of running a line from their house to the street. I favor exploring much smaller scale solutions that might also be more affordable for specific areas that are in a crisis state, like parts of downtown Katonah. The Board is exploring alternatives now.
Vander Linden: Clearly, there are many pockets in town where there are huge problems with individual septic systems. I’ve heard horror stories of people who’ve had to pump their tanks daily or who have tanks uphill overflow on them during heavy rains. But as you say, a full blown sewer system is prohibitively expensive. And such a system could change the character of the town dramatically, by making the construction of condos and other high rises possible. But there are now technologies that would serve handfuls of homes or small areas called “diversified” systems. As far as I understand it, the only impediment is identifying the areas most in need (improved communication would help this) and getting the county to allow these diversified systems. So, the town needs to make identifying the affected areas and finding solutions a priority.
Patch: The town maintains an active seniors program. Do you feel that program adequately addresses outreach to Bedford’s elderly population? Are there enough services for here for those “aging in place?”
Burdick: While we have very good programs for seniors, we always strive to improve them within budgetary constraints and in a cost-effective manner. The Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee with Superintendent of Parks Bill Heidepriem review these programs and make recommendations to the Board.
Gabrielson: We do have a number of great programs and activities for seniors, and I strongly favor maintaining, if not expanding them. Many are managed by our excellent staff in the Recreation and Parks Department. We can always do more, but adding any new services is now very difficult given the new state property tax cap. A meaningful fraction of our elderly residents aren’t in the position to pay more for increased service and expanded programs.
Vander Linden: The town does a lot to serve its diverse populations, particularly children and seniors. But, I’ll go back to what I’ve heard as I go door-to-door: The best thing we can do for our seniors is to make it possible for them to continue living here by lowering their taxes. Most have lived here 30 or 40 years or more, put their kids through school here, invested in the town for decades – it’s their home. But their taxes are higher than ever and now that they’re retired and are on fixed incomes, they can’t afford to live here anymore and they’re moving. And that’s sad. We lose their knowledge and experience and their care for community. And they can’t stay in the town they love. We need to make it easier for our seniors to stay and continue to be contributing members of our community.
Patch: The town board is considering eliminating the open space tax as cost-cutting measure. Are you in favor of this proposal? If it is eliminated, how can the town continue to work on preserving its open space?
Burdick: As stated previously, I am committed to holding down the Town budget to under the 2 percent cap. Based on the present figures we have from the departments and Comptroller Ed Ritter, we cannot do so if we retain the present 3 percent funding level for the Open Space Fund. A three percent Open Space tax seems to many a luxury and extravagance at a time of great financial stress for so many of our residents. At the time that the Town Board voted to hold a public hearing, my colleagues agreed with my suggestion that we also consider not only suspending the 3 percent levy in its entirety but also significantly lower levels of funding from ½ percent through 2 percentl. I also do not wish to prejudge the matter and am very interested in hearing the views of residents at the public hearing. If we do suspend the levy in its entirety, we still have options should a “trophy” property be available at a reasonable price (the Town is prohibited from purchasing for higher than its appraised value). We presently have approximately $2.5 million in the Open Space Fund while our outstanding debt is approximately $1.5 million. This healthy buffer would support additional debt service for an acquisition. Open Space is of the utmost importance as it is so much of the charm and beauty of this Town.
Gabrielson: We will be holding a public hearing to consider suspending all or a portion of the open space fund levy for 2012, and I hope residents turn out to voice their preferences. I’m a strong supporter of open space, and we are very fortunate to have a lot of it here, publicly and privately owned. I’d like to continue to find ways to preserve open space, and those who would like to join me in making a tax-deductible contribution to our fund on a voluntary basis will be able to do so next year even if the tax is suspended. Given the sacrifices we are asking of our employees and residents, it is difficult to continue to set substantial sums aside to buy open space (which is then also removed from the tax rolls) in these tough times.
Vander Linden: Luckily Bedford is a town with a lot of open space, both officially preserved or on private land that will never be developed. And Bedford has been at the forefront of preserving this space. However, given the current situation, spending at the same level to buy more space is a luxury we probably can’t afford right now. That being said, we can’t put the entire burden on one program. There have to cuts across the board. So, a temporary reduction? Absolutely. A reduction to 0? Absolutely not. Working with other groups and property owners to develop land responsibly and in keeping with the character of the town? A must.
Patch: Is there anything we didn’t ask that you’d like to address?
Burdick: The great American political humorist, Will Rogers, said it best, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s what this campaign is about. When David Gabrielson and I came into office, Town taxes were increasing a bit over 5 percent a year. Working with our Republican colleagues, we’ve brought that down to a bit over 2 percent. Our fiscal house is in order: Our credit rating is an enviable AAA, we have healthy reserves, we have maintained a high quality of town services, a new water filtration plant is under construction to bring good, clean drinking water from the NYC water system upstate, we have brought new ideas and fresh approaches to the town board – webcasting, competitive bidding and RFPs on virtually everything we do and it is healthy to have a balance on the Board – David and I are two Democrats working with three Republicans. We all act collaboratively and cooperatively and in the best interests of the residents. We don’t have the verbal slugfests and paralysis that occur in other communities. I submit that we’ve done a good job and merit re-election.
Gabrielson: Bedford is a fantastic place to live. The years before I was elected seem like a different time in many ways. We all felt more prosperous, and there wasn’t nearly the focus then, on cutting taxes, or even worrying much about their rate of increase. The three years before I took office, Town taxes and assessments rose just over 5 percent a year, on average. Your Board, Lee, Peter, Francis, Chris and I, have reduced that, delivering real tax relief over the last three budgets, to just 2.16 percent a year even before there was a state 2 percent cap. Now, going into a fourth year of cutting expenses and finding efficiencies, it will be more difficult to reduce spending without reducing services that our residents, as a whole, want and depend on. I hope you will trust me to continue to represent all of you in keeping Bedford strong financially, while improving the quality of our lives here
Vander Linden: Just that the residents of Bedford need town board members that listen to them and respect them. We need to look for efficiencies now instead of waiting for budget time. We need a town government that’s open and transparent and that communicates. And we need to develop a vision that protects and strengthens our hamlets and small businesses and organizations. What does it say about the town’s relationship with our unions when we have to pay $8,000 in police overtime to have to have a fire fighters parade or $6,000 to have an outdoor concert? In all the times I’ve seen those plans approved, I’ve never heard my opponents come up with a solution for that. Like most folks here in Bedford, I moved here from somewhere else. And I’m so glad I did. I’ve fallen in love with it. And I want to work hard to keep it great.