By Doug French
The professional success and community experience of the new candidates running for Rye Mayor and City Council in this year’s local election represent an incredibly impressive slate. Fresh perspectives and a new direction are on the ballot on November 7th. They could not have come at a better time.
Financial Direction: Rye’s financial indicators are going in the wrong direction. After growing only $1.7M in annual expenditures of
$31M from 2008 through 2014, government spending will top over $38M heading into next year – an increase of nearly $6M in a short period of time. Annual property tax increases have averaged 2% per year since 2010, but more than tripled to almost 7% in 2017. Not only was the property tax cap broken this year for the first time ever, it was obliterated. And this month the Council put through legislation to circumvent the calculation of the tax cap so that additional spending will bypass the integrity of the cap.
Even more alarming is the lack of an articulated strategy to address the projected growth in unfunded future liabilities tied to employee and retiree healthcare and benefits outlined in the Citizen’s Financial Advisory Committee report from 2012.
Strategic Direction: Strategic decision-making is also in need of new direction. Recent community concerns include the City’s plan to move the Department of Public Works facility to a site across from Rye Country Day School for a cost between $30M and $46M. This would be a significant deviation from the City’s established capital improvement plan of funding priorities — and a reversal of the plan for shared field space at that site.
The decision to litigate Westchester County over Playland was both a costly financial decision and a strategic blunder. In 2012, Rye and its residents finally became an approved strategic partner in the direction and management of Playland, a position that had been sought for decades. Yet, rather than continue collaborating on the future of the site, the City lost the leverage that was built when two years later it decided to take Westchester County to court. The City’s poor legal argument was exposed in a paraphrase of the ruling Judge’s dismissal of the case – “Playland has served Westchester residents and others since 1928, 14 years before the City of Rye came into existence. No state law gives Rye the authority to permit, approve, or regulate the County’s use of Playland.”
Further, the future direction of the Rye Fire Department remains stalled with no clear City leadership, strategy, or process in place. The complexity on how best to balance the use of paid firefighters vs. volunteer firefighters has lasting safety and financial implications. Proper due diligence and review is needed based on available options, analysis and recommendations from the City Manager, Public Safety Commissioner, Volunteer Fire Chiefs and industry experts.
Governing Direction: The call for change I hear most often around town is one for change in tone and process in the governing at City Hall. City decision-making and deliberations need to be open and transparent so that both the Council’s and public’s points-of-view are represented before the public, and received with the proper respect in tone and tenor.
Further, land use continues to be at the core of most public angst and ambiguity where projects pop-up for public awareness and input long after the process has been started. Rye remains behind surrounding communities and the digital age by not televising land-use board and committee hearings so that the community is informed about the what, when, why and who on land use decisions.
While most voters may not be immersed in the latest day-to-day issues of Rye, the fundamental decisions facing the Mayor and Council never change: Financial management and strategic direction on land use, litigation, and public safety in an open and transparent government. The seats on the ballot are volunteer public positions. After more than ten years of service in these roles, office holders tend to defend their positions rather than push for new ideas that reflect the needs of the full community. A choice for new voices and fresh perspectives on November 7th can deliver change and the new direction Rye needs.
< The author served as mayor of Rye from 2010-2013.>