At the year’s first City Council meeting, January 11, Mayor Doug French, in a spirited address, reminded the community of all the good work done in the past year, but urged residents to “once again be pioneers and look forward.”
In recognition of Rye’s 70th anniversary as a city, Mayor French began with a quote from the inaugural address of Rye’s first mayor, Livingston Platt. That address was given less than one month after America entered World War II. “The world was in troublesome times … had we known such times were coming I sometimes wonder whether we would have undertaken this course … In any event we have a job to do, we will carry on…”
Mayor French continued, “Seventy years later, while the circumstances are far different, the same spirit now is called for all of us – for now is the time for the City to once again be pioneers and look forward, and not be historians and look back. Government as we know it needs to continue to change and we need to lead it.
“There is a basic pact when each of us moved to Rye – great schools, great services, great value. That pact was threatened in 2011 as two forces – the prolonged economic recession and Mother Nature – put significant financial and emotional strain on the residents of our community.
• Residents like the retired couple who have spent their lives in Rye and are now on a fixed income can no longer afford the rapid rise of property taxes.
• Residents like the working couple that needs two incomes to be able to afford to live here – but one has lost their job and remains unemployed.
• Or, residents like the working professionals who are under-employed and have experienced a significant drop in their compensation and retirement plan; yet have incurred spikes in their healthcare coverage expenses.
• Or residents whose homes have faced drops in property values based on market conditions or floodwaters.
Those are the conditions that shape the actions and policies of this Mayor, this Council, and this City Management. So, the state of the City tonight is one of resilience.”
Mayor French then gave an overview of what the community can expect in 2012.
Property Tax Relief
In the spring of 2009 we began calling for property tax relief. The prior ten years at that time had an average property tax increase for City services of 6.5% for each year for ten years. Since then, the property tax increase has totaled only 5.4% for the last three years — an average of 1.8% per year. While the average property tax levy increase per year in the prior ten was about $1,000,000 in each year, for the last three years that amount has totaled to roughly that amount. So, we will continue to manage costs and explore new revenue sources such as the transfer tax on cash home sales for example.
At a time when property values are declining or holding flat, mandated federal health care legislation and New York State pensions are growing at double-digits – putting enormous strain on local governments. While New York State manages the pension system and seems unlikely to make any meaningful reforms, the City will need to address the growing unfunded liability of employee health care to include reviewing with our City Manger and Finance Committee health care plan design, plan savings, and employee contributions.
Two things we know. One, anyone can sue the City. Two, every municipality has a different structure for their law department. We took a different approach and looked at legal services from a business perspective. Rather than pay attorneys hourly rates to get us out of disputes, we changed the model and are paying a fixed rate to help pre-empt disputes by having Corporation Counsel at City Hall working with staff, Council, and our boards. We also have one of the leading municipal law firms in the state at the ready should we need additional legal support. The results speak for themselves. Legal expenses and the litigation hourly rate are down, our docket is shrinking, and we have either settled favorably or won our cases.
The One-Taxpayer Approach
Along with coming together in 2011 to settle the long-standing Osborn Home dispute, the School District and the City have worked together on pedestrian safety and recreation initiatives. This has carried through in coordinating capital planning and exploring shared services. This will continue in 2012.
Fair and Affordable Labor Deals
The ability to pay for Rye taxpayers during the continued economic recession and in particular with the consolidation of the financial services industry of which Rye residents are tied closely to, calls for the City and its Police and Fire Department unions to agree on new fair and affordable labor deals as those contracts expired years ago.
Rye has flooded and will flood again. This chamber has been filled the last five years with residents – and rightfully so, who are frustrated that the City (the people who have sat and sit at this dais) has not done more. But real mitigation is going to need real investment. The message from the Fed, State, and County is clear: the local stakeholder needs to make a significant financial commitment first. Yet, Rye is divided on this issue. We will let the people decide and will work to put forth a flood mitigation measure for a public vote by the end of this year. Our plan is to retain more water upstream, starting behind Bowman Dam and to ensure that individuals and businesses make smarter/safer decisions for preparedness downstream.
The City’s roads and infrastructure are worn. Purchase Street for example, the heart of the City, has not been fully re-paved since 1985. The City will review with the community infrastructure priorities for immediate need that include recommendations from our Shared Roadways Committee, and will review how best to fund capital improvements that may include a potential bond at the end of this year.
One of the basic staples of living in the City is to have your trash picked up – no one does it better than our DPW department. But are there ways to save money for the long-term? The City Council will ask the City Manager and our Finance Committee to tap into the experts on waste management to identify and make recommendations.
The Fire Department
The Fire Department has served the City extraordinarily well for decades and is a pillar of our community. Few residents realize though that our volunteer firefighters and paid firefighters each report into two separate entities. In any organization, especially when dealing with public safety and in a tax-cap world, the buck needs to stop with one person. The City Manager and I have spent the past year speaking with the Board of Wardens, Fire Chiefs, paid personnel, and volunteer firefighters discussing better alignment, and we hope to finalize a plan in the coming weeks to meet these objectives.
To supplement the great work by our first responders in emergency situations, the Council since Tropical Storm Irene has met with local organizations and leaders to discuss the creation of a volunteer network that could assist the community in many ways to include housing, transportation, working at shelters, communication and outreach, or clearing up debris to name a few. More on this to come. In addition, our public notification e-mail and text system — nixle.com — that complements the reverse 911 phone calls continues to expand. Every Rye resident should sign up for this notification service to stay informed of emergency, public safety, weather, and traffic issues around our City.
Our recreational facilities, fields, and open space are foundational to our quality of life At the year’s first City Council meeting, January 11, Mayor Doug French, in a spirited address, reminded the community of all the here in Rye, but now is time to review them in a broader strategic context collectively to see if there are ways to optimize recreation opportunities. Why is it that Rye Recreation Summer Camps do not use Rye Town Park, or why do Rye organizations go outside of Rye to hold their functions and not at the City-owned Whitby Castle, or that organizations such as the YMCA and others are in need of space for community programming, but the Damiano Center at times sits dormant. I would like to propose a Recreation Taskforce that is made up across key stakeholders to see where opportunities can be accelerated and scaled. And of course, we will continue to have our voice heard with the County as they look at the future of Playland and appreciate their inclusion of us in the process.
In response to public interest, we established an environmental sustainability committee to put together a sustainability plan for the City to look at our community carbon footprint, recycling improvements and community education. Their efforts have reflected the growing interests of a broad cross-section of Rye residents.
Our history is what ties our generations together and we have continued to make it a priority of who we are as a community. One example is the public-private partnership to restore the Friends Meeting House and the Bird Homestead has proven very successful and is bringing a community spirit to that area after ten years of being dormant.”
The Mayor extended warm thanks to City staff, his colleagues on the council, and all those who volunteer their time on behalf of Rye.