Rejecting incremental reductions, a succession of Bedford residents urged the town Tuesday either to fund in full or halt, at least for now, a decade-old land-acquisition program.
While the loudest applause at a packed public hearing greeted calls to suspend funding, most speakers asked the town board to keep on bankrolling the program, which has already spent more than $4 million over 10 years to buy open-space acreage. After an hour’s debate, 17 speakers and a couple of written comments, the board still had no official position. It agreed instead to continue the public hearing at 7 p.m. Nov. 15.
At issue is roughly a half-million dollars the town raises through a 3 percent taxpayer surcharge on the general fund and highway budget. A relatively meager amount of money—number-crunchers put the annual bite on an average homeowner at between $50 and $60—the special levy was overwhelmingly approved in a 2002 referendum and twice renewed since then. This year, however, it has run afoul of both a new state ceiling on local taxes and fears that it could cost some town employees their jobs.
Those urging a program moratorium Tuesday, some of them town employees, cast their position as the preferable alternative to layoffs. Lawrence E. Dwyer Jr. of Katonah, for example, arguing against the jobs vs. open space confrontation, told the board, “I know you’re not overstaffed. I’m voting for jobs.”
A former Bedford supervisor and town councilman, Dwyer declared, to sustained applause, “We can always come back to the open space.”
Randy Tucker of Bedford Hills agreed, saying that if workers’ jobs were in the balance, “I’m completely against the open space [levy].”
But R.J. Marx of Katonah, a longtime supporter of the levy, asked how “open space became pitted against jobs,” a choice that Katonah architect Martin Kravitt called “bogus.”
“The issue is far more complicated than pitting town employees against land preservation,” Kravitt said, expressing support for the latter.
But employees like Sue Carpentier of Parks and Recreation and Noreen Reagan in Finance opposed the continued funding. Carpentier said she felt “a little threatened” by the jobs issue while Reagan, who said she had “voted ‘yes’ for open space,” now questions just who is receiving a direct benefit from the land acquisition.
If some opposition to the continued funding was predictable, given the jobs-vs.-land scenario, so was a good bit of the support, coming as it did from conservation advocates and open-space activists.
George Bianco, who is both chairman of the nonprofit Westchester Land Trust and a member of the town’s Open-Space Acquisition Committee, called the special levy a ”very small” one, approved by 70 percent of the citizenry. “I think that our town has voted convincingly to have an open-space fund,” Bianco said, suggesting that its elimination would abrogate the “will of the voters.”
Candace Schafer, executive director of the Land Trust, said, “When you can leverage 52 percent of your dollar that is invested in something that will last forever, that is an investment to take a look at.”
MaryBeth Kass and Ellen Rouse Conrad, co-presidents of the Bedford 2020 Coalition, both urged continuation of the levy, which Conrad characterized as a”de minimus amount of money.”
“It was approved for a specific purpose,” she said, “not as revenue that could be used to preserve jobs.” Conjuring up the potential consequences of halting future land acquisitions, Conrad suggested angry taxpayers would “storm this front desk” where the board sat if available vacant land fell into a developer’s hands.
Others active in town affairs and supporting continued funding included Samuel Pryor, chairman of the Open-Space Committee, who submitted a letter; Simon Skolnik, chairman of the Conservation Board and member of the Energy Advisory Panel; and Rosemary Lee, an Open-Space committee member.
Tuesday’s public hearing was supposed to cover five proposed measures. They would either suspend the open-space surcharge for a year or reduce its 3 percent tax-bill bite. Under the proposed reductions, the surcharge next year would be suspended or reduced to range from half a percent up to 2 percent, in half-percent increments. As it turned out, residents never once mentioned any alternatives but the extremes of full funding or nothing.
In other action Tuesday, the board took these actions.
ACCEPTED, with obvious reluctance, Thomas Polzella’s letter announcing his retirement from the post of town assessor. Led by Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts, each member of the board remarked on Polzella’s service and the respect he’d earned.
EXTENDED until Nov. 15 the deadline for accepting late school tax payments at only a 2 percent penalty. The accommodation, occasioned by this past weekend’s Nor’easter, it was requested by Tax Receiver Amy Pectol and averted an escalation of the penalty to 5 percent, which had been scheduled to kick in Nov. 1.
APPROVED the Bedford Hills Neighborhood Association’s 5K Run for the Hills next April.