The City Council meeting to watch so far this year was not on a Wednesday night, where tempers often flair and the public despairs, but on a Saturday morning.
By Robin Jovanovich
The City Council meeting to watch so far this year was not on a Wednesday night, where tempers often flair and the public despairs, but on a Saturday morning. It’s the one where the seven Council members spoke thoughtfully and sincerely about their short- and long-term agendas and goals for the community.
The Strategic Workshop, held January 12, showed the Council’s firm resolve and served as a good indicator of each member’s priorities and approaches.
For Mayor Doug French, 2013 is a rebuilding year for the City. “The totality of capital improvement projects to repair our aging infrastructure is one big initiative,” he said in an interview after the workshop. “We have a four-year financial plan, which will allow us to beautify our downtown, create safer sidewalks, intersections, and streets, and keep property values high. It’s tied to our labor contracts.”
Councilman Joe Sack would like to see a number of outstanding issues come to resolution this year. Among them: “Figure out what’s happening with 1037 Boston Post Road; come to a mutually acceptable agreement on the police contract without having to see this through to the bitter end; continue Phase 1 of the Rye Golf Club investigation and pivot into Phase 2 to restore members’ faith in the club and make sure they have a successful season; possible outsourcing of the recycling aspect of sanitation collection; and Playland — everyone is ‘gaga’ about the Sustainable Playland Inc. plan, but City of Rye residents should receive preference on field use.”
Overall, Councilwoman Julie Killian agrees that finishing up old business is a step in the right direction. For one, she’d like to make sure the City has a firm conflict-of-interest policy on City employees having outside employers. She’d like to see a list of everything the City owns and leases for the sake of full financial disclosure and future decision-making. Killian also wants to review the Enterprise Fund model.
“We’ll want to evaluate various alternatives when the Finance Committee makes its recommendations, so we need all the financial facts we can,” said Killian. “The big drivers of cost this year are the sale of 1037 Boston Post Road and the public safety contracts. I’d also like the City to review the police presence in our schools and pursue some of the Sustainability Committee’s initiatives, such as having the City use biofuel.”
Among Councilman Peter Jovanovich’s priorities are: the core issue of managing rising health care and pension costs; the creation of additional downtown parking; a reorganization and full vetting of Rye Golf Club but, more importantly, a review of the Enterprise Fund concept. “Enterprise funds are our own Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac — seemingly independent, except when trouble strikes. Then the general taxpayer picks up the tab. We need to bring these funds back into general government, thereby eliminating wasteful duplication of accounting, payroll, and maintenance departments.”
As far as the police contract negotiations, Jovanovich said: “From the taxpayer’s perspective, grinding on sometimes produces a better result. We’re more likely to come to a resolution outside of arbitration if we grind on. Our City Manager, Scott Pickup, is waging a tough fight with the union to get them to contribute more to their health care, just the way the School Board did with the Rye teacher’s union. The Council must give the City Manager 100 percent backing.”
The City’s biggest challenge, said Councilwoman Laura Brett, is the financial burden of rising health care and pension costs. “Our job is to balance our service with those costs.” Citing 2012 as a “difficult year for the City Manager’s office”, Brett recommends the hiring of a part- or full-time person who performs a personnel (human resources) function.
With a goal of preserving the character of the community, Brett recommends the City look at providing tax incentives to restore, rather than tear down older homes and buildings.
Councilwoman Catherine Parker wants to make sure that the County taxes Rye citizens and businesses pay are justified and equitable. “Twenty-three percent of our tax bill goes to the County. Rye received a 7 percent tax increase this year. Here we are trying as a Council, a City to keep taxes low and home values high and we’re getting punished by the County for that.”
The fastest path to a long-term parking solution for commuters and residents may be a public/private partnership, proffered Councilman Rich Filippi. Unlike Councilman Sack, he doesn’t want to return authority for FOIL requests to the Council. “The Council shouldn’t be the final arbiter; let’s leave it to the professional staff. I’m all for charging more for FOILS. We should also press the State for protection of staff and the Council from undue harassment.”
Mayor French had more thoughts on parking. “It is one of our top goals. Because of aesthetic and cost concerns, we’re considering smaller, tiered lots — opposite Highland Hall, CVS, and Cedar Street — which would be funded through permits and meters.”
Here’s to a very good year.