New City, Jan 4 — At last night’s State of The Town address, Clarkstown Supervisor Alexander Gromack called for a serious study of turning the Town of Clarkstown into the City of Clarkstown to let the largest municipality in Rockland County collect its own taxes. Gromack says Clarkstown pays in more than it gets back from Rockland and city status would change that relationship. The Clarkstown’s Supervisor also proposed a change in NYS law to permit the direct election of the Public Utilities Commission to improve oversight of O&R and United Water.
The evening also included a swearing in ceremony for Clarkstown’s newly elected officials including Gromack, Council Members Shirley Lasker and Frank Borelli, Town Clerk Justin Sweet and Town Justice Howard Gerber.
Gromack’s State of The Town address highlighted Clarkstown’s 2011 accomplishments and the supervisor’s plans for 2012. Here is the text of his speech:
Once again I have the great privilege of presenting my eighth annual State of the Town Address. I humbly thank the residents of Clarkstown for their continuing support and confidence and pledge all my energy and efforts to keeping our town a great place to live, work and raise a family.
In this the most joyous time of the year, let us remember the men and women of our armed forces, especially those who served in Iraq who are now, thankfully returning to their families and those continuing to serve in Afghanistan and across the world for their sacrifices on our behalf. We hold all of them close in our thoughts and pray for their safe and quick return to their families.
As many of you know, our town currently provides the maximum property tax exemption for veterans permitted under state law. Nonetheless I think our town should acknowledge the sacrifices made by our Clarkstown residents who have served in the war against terrorism.
The Town Board and I, although we are aware that our action will never fully compensate for their sacrifices, will be directing our town’s Recreation and Parks Department to ensure that all troops returning from a post 9/11 combat zone and their immediate families will be entitled to a free pass to all Clarkstown pools. This program mirrors our current ‘free pool pass’ program being offered to Clarkstown residents who volunteer for our ambulance, fire departments and auxiliary police.
As we reflect on the past year, on a national level, we have again experienced a year where the economy continued to struggle, unemployment remained at high and unacceptable levels, the deficit climbed and our Federal Government seems unable to move beyond finger pointing long enough to put any real solutions in place.
On a state level, Governor Andrew Cuomo is working hard to bring some sense of fiscal reality to government, making hard choices and acting in a deliberate and forceful way to reverse the mistakes of the past and set a clear course for the future.
On the local level, our county faces a serious and unparalleled fiscal crisis that will result in severe service cuts while significantly raising property taxes, sales taxes and municipal debt through the issuance of bonds to meet its financial obligations.
All these factors, which are for the most part beyond the control of this and every other town nevertheless, have a direct impact on our town and the 85,000 people who call Clarkstown home.
I am proud to share with you tonight that Clarkstown is in very good shape. Our town is healthy, financially sound, vibrant and growing.
Financially, we maintained our Triple AAA bond rating, the highest municipal rating possible. Our property tax rate demonstrated our continuing commitment to stabilize taxes by having a 0% budget in 2011 and a 0.4% increase in 2012. Those figures represent the lowest tax numbers in decades. We have a healthy tax stabilization fund in excess of $15 million dollars and over the last several years have saved over $10 million in operating expenses and personnel costs.
Since 2005, our town has received over $30 million in grants from the federal, state and county governments further reducing the burden on our property owners.
We continue consolidating town government services by combining the Town Clerk and Receiver of Taxes office which was approved by the voters in November 2011. That consolidation will save us approximately $500,000 a year.
This year we will be looking at consolidating the highway, mini-trans and town garage which will produce even more savings for our tax payers.
We have, through the hard work and dedication of my fellow colleagues on the Town Board, our department heads, our CSEA employees, and our police, managed to reduce the costs of town government without cutting the heart out of our services or our communities.
As a result of these efforts, our town remains the fifth safest town in the nation and among the one hundred best places to live according to CNN Money magazine.
We will continue cutting costs, responsibly managing our assets, monitoring our expenses, seeking out and securing grants and protecting our quality of life, or in a few words doing better with less, because that is what I pledged in 2005 and that is what I and the Town Board pledge again tonight.
Our town is vibrant.
We continue revitalizing our downtowns making them the centers of our hamlets and communities.
The current revitalization of New City continues on schedule and when completed will serve as a model in making downtowns pedestrian friendly, attractive and the centers of our communities.
We have completed 125 out of 150 flood prevention projects that are on our list, with two major projects in Central Nyack and Valley Cottage on track for completion in 2012.
“It is time to truly make the Public Service Commission, the public’s service commission.” — Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack
We recently received the coveted Pace University Land Use Law Center’s Founders Award in recognition of our completed comprehensive plan. According to their website, and I quote, ‘€œThe spirit in which the Town of Clarkstown approached and implemented its comprehensive plan is the type of community planning that we would like to highlight and celebrate.’€
We have protected 205 acres of open space that are and always will be available to families for hiking, bird watching and the simple but valuable enjoyment of nature. In addition to renovating many of our recreational facilities, we redesigned the Fireman Kevin Landau Park in New City, created a Stay Fit Senior Program, developed inclusive recreational programs for developmentally challenged children, built a synthetic ice skating rink in Congers Park and we are constructing a walking trail around Congers Lake.
The Town Board and I are committed to ensuring that our town’s environment, natural beauty and recreational opportunities we leave to our children will be at least as good if not better than what we have been privileged to enjoy.
Our town is growing.
In the last three years our Planning Board has reviewed over one million four hundred thousand square feet of commercial and industrial site plans including the exciting redevelopment plans for the Nanuet Mall. Some of the completed projects include the New City Stop and Shop, Lowes Home Improvement Center in Nanuet, Kohl’s Industrial Park in Congers, Cambridge University Press in West Nyack, Brega Bus Maintenance and Depot in Valley Cottage, Landmark Corporate Park in New City, Clarkstown Executive Park in Valley Cottage and United Structural Steel in Congers.
In addition to these commercial projects which balance the property tax burden among residential and commercial properties, we are a leader in responding to the residential needs of our ever growing senior population.
Through our innovative Active Adult Residence Floating Zone we have approved the construction of 800 residential units for seniors 55 and older. There are currently 2 Active Adult Residence (AAR) projects in front of the Planning Board in addition to the Hygena Lake Senior Citizen Complex which will provide a total of 106 senior citizen units to the already existing housing stock in the town and the recently completed Eden Park in West Nyack.
These highlights are just part of the story of our towns’ success and strength. I would ask that you take some time to review the accomplishment section of this address for a more comprehensive list of what your town has accomplished this year.
Before speaking about two topics that I think require specific action and review this year, I want to take a few minutes to make it clear that the achievements I have spoken of tonight were not the result of any single person’s actions.
“I believe between 65% and 70% of all county sales taxes are collected in the Town of Clarkstown. What would be the benefit, if any, if Clarkstown changed its charter from a town to a city permitting us to collect sales tax and significantly reducing our town property tax.” — Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack
So let me say a few words and give credit where credit is due:
Residents and business owners from across the town volunteer their time to various committees to help us identify needed services and programs thus improving the town’s operations. Others serve on our advisory boards.
Our town employees come here every day to make government work. They are the face of town government. They are the face of Clarkstown.
Our department heads, who despite tighter budgets year after year, remain committed to managing the delivery of quality services and programs to our residents.
Our Highway Department employees who have worked tirelessly day and night to remove the debris and damage resulting from the recent storms.
Our Police Department administrators and officers, who are always true to their responsibility to provide courteous, professional and effective community policing for our residents and businesses keeping us and our town safe.
This year, they will continue that commitment as Chief Sullivan and his team initiate ‘€˜Ready Clarkstown’ a new program designed to revamp our emergency notification system using a multi-media communication plan to notify residents of emergencies and enhance our public awareness of preventative procedures. We can not and will not solely depend on our local media or the Rockland County government AM radio station in keeping our residents informed before, during and after an emergency.
My friends and Town Board colleagues Shirley Lasker, Frank Borelli, George Hoehmann and Stephanie Hausner, I thank them for their continued support and collaboration on behalf of our residents.
Our other elected officials, Highway Superintendent Wayne Ballard, Receiver of Taxes Loretta Raimone, and Judges Scott Ugell, Craig Johns, Howard Gerber, and Rolf Thorsen who continue to serve our residents with distinction.
I want to congratulate our newly elected Town Clerk Justin Sweet and also share my best wishes for our re-elected District Attorney Tom Zugibe and our new Sheriff Lou Falco as well as our new Family Court Judge Sherri Eisenpress. And there must be a cooperative and working partnership with our county government and I look forward to working with our county executive, our County Legislative Chairwoman Harriet Cornell and all our county legislators in that endeavor.
I thank State Senator David Carlucci and NYS Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski for their continued and consistent efforts on the state level to represent the interests of our town and our 29,000 families as well as our Federal Officials U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Congress members Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey.
All of these people are partners in Clarkstown’s progress and bright promise.
While we can look back with pride, our real job is to look ahead and continue to take responsible and prudent actions to protect and enhance our quality of life.
It is that spirit that I want to share two initiatives for 2012.
Under state law, the Public Service Commission was created to keep our public utilities accountable and financially responsible. In truth, however, while many of the PSC staff may be well meaning, the commissioners act more like the Wizard of Oz.
When we ask the PSC for more accountability from O&R or United Water or the telephone or cable companies, it seems we get more inaction rather than action. When we ask them to deny the ever present rate hike requests we get riddles instead of relief.
It is infuriating to note, even in light of the dismal failures in accountability, information sharing and response of O&R during the recent storms, O&R has applied for and will most likely get a rate increase that will exceed the 2% tax cap that municipalities have to live with.
It is clear to me that our town and municipalities across our state need a Public Service Commission that will go to bat for us. Unlike the Wizard of Oz who hides behind a curtain we need a commission which is in clear view. A commission in Albany which will be directly answerable to the people of New York.
If New Yorkers can be entrusted to elect who will lead our state, our counties, cities, towns and villages, who will sit as judges in our courts, who will represent us in our legislative bodies we can just as effectively choose whom we want to represent us as Commissioners on the PSC.
I am therefore tonight, and through an earlier letter, requesting Clarkstown’s state representatives to support Assembly Bill # A7174 and a companion senate bill calling for the establishment of election districts in the State of New York and the popular election of PSC commissioners from each of those election districts.
It is time to truly make the Public Service Commission, the public’s service commission.
My second initiative will be to review the town’s current charter.
For years now the Town Board and I have been aggressively pursuing a more equitable distribution of the sales tax revenue collected by the County of Rockland. I believe between 65% and 70% of all county sales taxes are collected in the Town of Clarkstown. In 2011 the County of Rockland budgeted $175 million dollars in county sales tax, of which the Town of Clarkstown only received $2.8 million dollars or 1.6% of the total collected by the county. This is simply not a fair and equitable distribution of the sales tax.
Of even more pressing concern, again in light of the seemingly dysfunctional state of county finances are the projected and disastrous cuts in county services.
So, in an almost perfect storm scenario we see increases in county property taxes of 30%, a proposed increase in county sales taxes, increases in the county mortgage tax, a new county hotel/motel tax, a new county real estate tax and a new county E911 cell phone tax accompanied by substantial and unprecedented cuts or eliminations of county services or worse, transferring costs for programs from the county to the town to pay for.
Those tax increases and service cuts will have severe and negative impacts on the very quality of life we have worked to enhance and protect for Clarkstown residents.
The question before us is then. What would be the benefit, if any, if Clarkstown changed its charter from a town to a city permitting us to collect sales tax and significantly reducing our town property tax.
This is not a new question but it is a question that has never been seriously addressed and should be addressed now.
I propose the creation of a select committee to conduct a comprehensive review of the feasibility, economic impact and practical implication of what this change would mean.
As a city we could collect our own sales tax.
Let me make this perfectly clear so there is no misinterpretation of this initiative.
Any such change, if it were to take place would require an exhaustive review of the benefits versus the drawbacks of such a charter change. In addition, from the first step to the last we would ensure that our town residents understood what such a change would mean to them through a public outreach and informational process similar to that which was used during our comprehensive planning process.
Finally, if the comprehensive review of the feasibility of such a change suggested that this charter change would not reduce the net taxes paid by the Clarkstown property taxpayers or not provide the services required and expected by our residents the initiative would simply be abandoned.
I am sure that before I finish this address, which will be shortly, critics will already be attacking both initiatives.
They will say that the state hasn’t approved a new city charter in 60 years and that trying to make the PSC more accountable is like trying to change the stripes on a zebra.
However, we should not be afraid to ask the questions or study the issues. Can we do something better? Let’s find out.
I take some comfort in remembering that the only way to escape criticism is to say nothing, do nothing and be nothing.
If our Founding Fathers had heeded the advice of the naysayers, July fourth would be nothing more than just a date on the calendar and tea would still be our national beverage.
What distinguishes a dream from reality is the leadership and the action to make that dream a reality.
Let’s choose action!
I promised in 2005 that as supervisor, I would do all that I could to make and keep Clarkstown a great place to live, work and raise a family.
I am humbled by the fact that the people of my town have reelected me as their supervisor for five separate terms. It is proof that as a town we can and will work together to achieve what is best for us, our children and our families.
I am continuously and repeatedly impressed with the energy and commitment of our residents. They are hard working, educated and family oriented. They want the best for their children and their families.
They understand the value of being part of a community and the need to contribute back to that community.
Tonight I renew my pledge that I will work as hard as I can to continue earning your support and confidence.