Category Archives: Council Corner

Bucci-1

Column: Snacks and a laptop at the library?

This anecdote will come as a complete shock to anyone who can remember when water wasn’t permitted in the library, never mind snacks. Earlier this year, my fifth grade daughter climbed the stairs to the teen section at the Rye library in search of a book for her book club. After helping her find the book, the librarian suggested that the book club meet at the library and bring snacks. I know. Snacks? At the library?

Like me, many of you may find this surprising, but libraries nationwide are undergoing a transformation. Gone are the cubicles and dark, narrow corridors between dusty book stacks. In an effort to stay relevant during the digital era, libraries are creating more welcoming environments with open space, laptop bars, comfortable seating, meeting rooms and, yes, snacks.

An article in the New York Times published in March 2014, called “Breaking out of the library mold, in Boston and beyond,” highlights the Boston Public Library as “breaking out of its granite shell to show an airier, more welcoming side to the passing multitudes. Interior plans include new retail space, a souped-up section for teenagers, and a high-stool bar where patrons can bring their laptops and look out over Boylston Street.” A study of the Pew Internet & American Life Project indicated that 59 percent of library users want more comfortable reading areas.

The Rye Free Reading Room has already made part of this transition with respect to digital access and programming. It offers free Wi-Fi, computer sessions and is continually expanding its e-book collection. You can even download music to keep. Not only has the number of programs increased 15 percent to 1,143 over the past two years, but the programming is more varied. It includes more traditional offerings like story time for children and meet-the-author events as well as Science Fun club for elementary school children, computer classes and lectures on photography and healthcare. And if you consider that our library is closed on Sundays and most holidays, the 1,143 programs offered by our library in 2014 translates to nearly four programs each day. That’s impressive.

Our library serves all the segments of Rye’s population. It is a great place for kids to find homework help and meet to do group projects after school. It’s also a gathering site for seniors.

The next step in our library’s ongoing effort to meet the evolving requests of its patrons is to provide the physical space to support the community’s needs. This will require a substantial capital investment. Our library has plans for renovation that, once completed, will include 1,400 square feet of additional flexible seating and program space, two private study rooms available for tutoring sessions or book groups, a laptop bar and charging station, a double height atrium that restores original light and windows overlooking the Blind Brook. The project will continue the library’s evolution toward becoming a community center, not just a place to borrow books.

As with any other capital-intensive project, the question of funding arises. And as with most projects involving the library, the answer is with a capital campaign. The city contributed $1.2 million to the Rye library in 2014, roughly two-thirds of the library’s total budget. If that seems low, on a relative basis, it is. Surrounding communities typically contribute a much larger portion of their libraries’ operating budgets. Larchmont and Chappaqua, for example, contribute more than 90 percent of their libraries’ budgets. This means that our library already relies heavily on fundraising and grants to fund its operations and programming.

The next time you or your kids are searching for something to do, stop by or log into the Rye library and check out the new offerings. And when our library conducts its capital campaign, remember that only $75 per person from our annual tax dollars go to the Rye Free Reading Room.

Killian-2-(2)

Column: Questions that come my way

 

 

As I am an active member of our community, in addition to being an elected official, I often field questions when I am out and about.

Frequent inquiries include: “Why haven’t you discussed this yet?” “What does the mayor think?” “Why did it take you so long to resolve this?” “Why aren’t you doing anything about…?”

Sometimes it is difficult to answer these questions, especially if the council has not had a chance to meet and discuss the matter yet. Generally speaking, the full council cannot get together and discuss city business and make decisions in private. We are not allowed to meet and address council business if a quorum—at least four out of seven of us—is present, as per the Open Meetings Law.

The mayor often serves as connector, and reaches out to us individually on important topics. But because we only meet formally as a group at City Hall every couple of weeks at best, this schedule can draw out the issue vetting and decision-making process. When I first was appointed to the council almost three and a half years ago, the pace of government drove me crazy. It was too slow! I have since realized that often, that pace is a good thing and can save a governing body from actions that have negative or unintended consequences.

When we do hold public council meetings at City Hall, we welcome members of the community to contribute their views. There is no requirement for residents to be able to speak at meetings, but in Rye, there is always a spot on our regular agenda for this purpose. Our mayor in particular often gives residents well beyond the usual five minutes. Many other municipalities do not. Those of us going to the United Hospital hearings in Port Chester know there is a large timer set for five minutes that begins ticking once a resident starts speaking.

Because Rye currently has many pressing issues and many interested residents, our meetings can run late. I am grateful to longtime Rye resident Henry King, who comes to every meeting and keeps us company until the wee hours of the morning, even after everyone else has left.

Some of the biggest issues I hear about outside of our meetings involve infrastructure, especially roads and sidewalks. Although the city has completed many capital projects over the last couple years for roads, sanitary sewer, drainage and pedestrian improvements, there is still much to be done.

The Traffic and Pedestrian Safety Committee and Safe Routes to School group have worked on and continue to work on many of these projects. There are currently about 12 projects in design that will require either additional community conversation or approval from state and federal agencies.

The Capital Improvement Plan for 2016-2020, on the city website, ryeny.gov, outlines and prioritizes dozens of projects and purchases totaling almost $49 million. The council will be prioritizing these projects further to get some into the 2016 budget.

Likewise, the council may want to consider whether it would be financially beneficial to raise the city’s debt limit to allow more funding via debt. Traditionally, the city has used debt sparingly and has a very low debt limit relative to our budget. The City Charter dramatically limits the amount of our debt, especially compared to the amount allowed under state law.

In the last two years, our council has increased dramatically the money budgeted for roads. Most notably, in 2014, we paved Station Plaza and the MTA parking lot roadway, long the most complained about area in town.

For 2015, we budgeted $650,000 for streets and accepted an additional $350,000 of N.Y. State Consolidated Local Streets and Highway Improvement Program, CHIPS, money, for a total of $1 million. Comparatively, in 2012, the budget was zero plus $285,000 from CHIPS. So we have been playing catch up.

Some residents express frustration to me that they do not always know what is going on in the city. However, in addition to local newspapers, they can watch council meetings live on TV or on the computer. The city website is a great resource with resident notices, digital documents and video of all past council meetings. Residents can also sign up for Code Red or any of eight email distribution lists Rye offers: Commuter Parking Updates, Council Agenda and Minutes, Planning Matters, Recreation News and four different Recreation Camp lists.

Nobody wants to be on more email lists but I recommend the agenda distribution list. Residents will receive a few days before each council meeting an email with the agenda and all supporting documents which routinely run hundreds of pages long. No need to read it all; just scan the agenda for topics of interest. But if you like reading hundreds of pages and are interested in the issues, please consider running for City Council sometime in the future.

In the meantime, keep asking me your questions, and tune in to our next meeting.

 

Terry-McCartney

Column: Just a little patience is all we need

There is a great Guns N’ Roses song from the late ‘80s called “Patience” that tells us that if we “take it slow, it’ll work itself out fine, all we need is just a little patience.” I think it’s one of the best rock songs ever made and I turn it up every time it comes on the radio without the need for the “Sweet Home Alabama” type of reminder. I’m doing that Axl Rose swaying thing with my head right now, singing the lyrics to myself.

The Rye City Council has been dealing with a number of problems this year during the usually quiet summer months that call for “just a little patience.” The proposed rock chipping legislation is an example, of course, but I’m also referring to the turf problems we have suffered at the Rye Golf Club, RGC, this summer.

In May, the city and the RGC membership were the unfortunate victims of a contaminated fertilizer product that we unknowingly sprayed on our greens. We had sprayed identical products for many years without an incident. This year, however, because the product was contaminated, instead of performing its usual function, the product actually killed most of the grass on our greens. As a result of the severe damage, we were forced to close the greens on June 1 and the staff at the RGC has been working hard to bring them back ever since. We thought it would take about 12 weeks to repair the damage and we asked for members to be patient.

The greens reopened this past weekend as promised. To those who were patient, thank you.

RGC Manager Jim Buonaiuto, Golf Course Superintendent Chip Lafferty and their hardworking staff have done an excellent job dealing with this difficult problem and deserve the thanks of every RGC member for their Herculean efforts. They have done everything right every step of the way and are the reason that the course has reopened so quickly and looks so good. I have spent a good deal of time at the RGC during this situation and I am fairly certain that Jim and Chip work longer hours than any other city employees, with the possible exceptions of our new City Manager Marcus Serrano and his assistant city manager, Eleanor Militana who always seem to be around and on top of things as well. Thanks to all of you and your staff for getting this done.

That’s only part of the story, however. The rest of the story will take place over the next few months as we continue to seek recovery from the manufacturer of the defective product that has caused us so much harm. Tessenderlo Kerley, Inc., TKI, is the product manufacturer and the council and city staff have been working with them to attempt to settle our claims without the expense and delays of litigation. Once again, we have done all we can to submit our claim and the supporting proof of our losses and we are hopeful that TKI’s insurance carrier will make us whole. The claims resolution process will take place over the next few months but the initial indications for a reasonably quick resolution appear to be positive at this point.

So, those of you demanding refunds from your non-RGC-member fellow taxpayers and threatening lawsuits against the city, here I go again with the head swaying and singing my song:

“… little patience, mm yeah, mm yeah / need a little patience, yeah / just a little patience, yeah / some more patience, yeah / need some patience, yeah / could use some patience, yeah / gotta have some patience, yeah / all it takes is patience / just a little patience is all you need.”

LAURA-BRETT2

Column: NY Rising, HUD and flood mitigation

In the next few weeks, the City of Rye will have to decide whether to accept a grant from New York Rising for flood mitigation. The program administered by the state is a disaster recovery program that thoroughly and thoughtfully evaluates community needs to identify and provide funding for projects that build community resiliency. The money for the New York Rising grant comes not from New York state, but from the federal government, specifically, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, Community Development Block Grant, CDBG, funding. This kind of funding is usually used for affordable housing but here it is being used for disaster relief—the extreme flooding Rye experienced during the major storms in the last few years, Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene.

Grants for disaster relief or flood mitigation, whether from the county, state or federal government, should not come with strings attached. This CDBG grant from HUD, however, like all CDBG grants from HUD, require the recipients to enter into an agreement accepting conditions unilaterally imposed by HUD. The HUD grants used for disaster relief should be administered consistent with the resiliency goals set forth by the New York Rising program—to aid communities significantly impacted by a natural disaster—rather than to further HUD’s mission to affirmatively further fair housing. Our decision to accept or reject this grant, unfortunately, requires us to reflect on Westchester County’s experience with HUD in its affordable housing settlement and HUD’s heavy-handed administration of that settlement.

A renewed focus on affirmatively furthering fair housing in Rye is unwarranted. Rye has a history of advocating for affordable housing within our community and we have built or are in the process of building affordable housing in several locations in our community. Furthermore, Rye does not have a history of racial segregation and was more racially diverse 100 years ago than it is today. While it might be worth delving into the causes of the decreasing diversity in the community, the community’s history of racial integration suggests the cause is not zoning-related, but economic.

In Rye, and other communities with strong public school systems, the zoning districts where houses are closer together or that have multi-family housing have been increasingly settled by upper middle class families as housing prices have increased. Housing prices in the more densely-populated neighborhoods have now increased to the point where what was once an “affordable” neighborhood is no longer affordable.

The City Council is in the process of evaluating its obligations if it accepts the HUD grant. If we accept the grant, we will undoubtedly fulfill our obligations as required. If we decide against accepting the grant, our decision will undoubtedly rest upon our assessment of the risks associated with taking a CDBG grant. We should not have to make such a decision and it is unfortunate we even have to undertake this analysis. Our community suffered extensive damage due to flooding and, together with New York Rising, we have developed several plans to mitigate flooding, build our resiliency and minimize flood damage in the future. Grants for flood mitigation should not require a community impacted by a natural disaster to help further HUD’s mission to affirmatively further fair housing, particularly when the disaster mitigation being funded is unrelated to rebuilding any housing.

Column: Rocks, Rocky and the din in my head

In my younger days, I was known to occasionally frequent Chumley’s, an old speakeasy in the West Village, tucked away on a relatively quiet street, accessed by a secret courtyard entrance.

More recently, some abutting neighbors filed a lawsuit and attempted to shut down Chumley’s, alleging that it was too loud for a residential block.

In a court ruling, which allowed Chumley’s to keep serving pints to happy patrons, Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jaffe cited a decades-old case which held that “in the modern world, some degree of noise, tension and discomfort is the inevitable concomitant of urban life.”

This maxim may well apply too to the leafy idyll of Rye.

Over the past number of years, there has been no shortage of Chumley’s-like noise issues in our fair city.

It has also been no small challenge to balance the competing perspectives of our varied residents, from the eminently reasonable to the boorishly self-entitled, and everyone in between.

The din from the debates replete with mostly fair points, a modicum of indignant bluster, and a dash here and there of oblivious self-righteousness, sometimes seems louder than the allegedly offensive sound du jour.

We have addressed complaints about the incessant buzz from gardeners’ leaf blowers, the early-morning clipped commands of the Row America coxswains, the late-night hum from the bar-goers at Tiki Bar and Seaside Johnnie’s, and the hearty “mazel tovs” wafting from Wainwright House wedding receptions.

This time of year, the eerie crescendo of the invisible cicada insect is omnipresent in the hazy summer air.

Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about that one, but everyone seems to register their own bug-a-boo, so to speak, on the sound spectrum.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know that the latest uproar in many quarters of town has been about rock chipping.

If that appellation sounds too harmless or dainty for your point of view, it may be more apt to call it rock hammering. Or rock nuclear bombing.

I listened to one resident describe the home construction-related rock excavation as being punched in the face over and over and over again.

Hyperbole or not, I couldn’t erase from my mind the image of Rocky Balboa’s face turned to complete a hamburger after a million pummeling rounds in the ring with Apollo Creed.

In the news this week was the story about the upholding of the four-game suspension of New England quarterback Tom Brady.

Some die-hard Patriots fans believe that their Super Bowl hero should not have been suspended at all.

During Rye’s rock chipping discussion, there may be some Patriots fans—those who, as a result of close proximity or special sensitivity—feel legitimately and passionately that rock chipping should not be allowed at all, or allowed only so long as it is not too loud, which is to say, again, that rock chipping should be outright outlawed.

Similarly, there may be those who believe that the villain of Deflategate ought to be awarded a full-season timeout or worse. Let’s call them delirious Jets fans. Unreconstructed constructors if you must.

But for most folks, just to kill off the metaphor, I think that the conversation centers on this question: should the suspension for Giselle’s hubby be one game, two games, three games or maybe a little more?

Or, should rock chipping be regulated to 15 days, 30 days, 45 days or maybe a little more?

As we continue to progress through the deliberative process during our public meetings, I would encourage the motivated attendees—who have built a well-developed record on both sides—to pivot away from declarative statements, and toward a greater appreciation for the counterpoint.

One recent speaker at a council meeting stood up to assail all the things that were wrong with the proposed draft rock chipping law. I wondered, how could things be so stark and bleak? I felt like asking, what is good about the law?

As a litigator in my professional life, I will sometimes engage in pre-trial mediation with my adversary in order to help resolve differences. One tactic effective mediators often employ to facilitate an acceptable settlement is to require the opposing lawyers to repeat back the other side’s position.

As we chip away at the rock chipping issue, let’s make understanding, flexibility and compromise the true concomitant of Rye life.

Bucci-1

Column: Why Rye needs to rein in future costs

I am a big fan of our city’s employees. During my time on the council, I have witnessed firsthand the dedication, expertise and effort that the staff in every department brings to their jobs, helping to make our city run. However, there is one benefit City of Rye employees receive that is likely to eventually imperil the city’s finances if it is not brought under control.

Historically, the city has paid 100 percent of the premiums associated with healthcare benefits upon retirement for qualified employees. It’s a contracted benefit and it varies by group. For the police and fire departments, a minimum of 20 years of service is required, with no minimum retirement age. For other groups, individuals must be 55 upon retirement, with five years vested in the New York state retirement system, and required years of service to the city varies by department—DPW and clerical is 10 years while the Administrative Pay Group is zero years.

In its first step to address this growing issue, the city’s most recent contracts with the Administrative Pay Group and the clerical unit call for new employees to contribute a portion of their retirement healthcare premium. I think it is important to continue to make similar changes for future employees of the city. Here’s why:

In 2014, the City of Rye paid $1.7 million in retirement healthcare costs. This represents 5 percent of our 2014 operating revenue, excluding the enterprise funds (golf club and boat basin). Forecasting what these costs will be in future years is difficult because it involves numerous assumptions, including rates of increase in healthcare costs, employee retirement ages and life expectancy. Given rising healthcare costs and increased longevity, I think it is reasonable to assume that without changes, the city cost of retirement healthcare premiums will far outpace our tax cap. Assuming a 5 percent annual increase in retirement healthcare costs, and a 1 percent increase in revenue over the next 10 years, the annual cost of retirement healthcare will eat up an ever-greater share of the city’s revenues.

Approximately one-third of the city’s revenue comes from sources other than property taxes (discretionary revenue). Much of it is interest rate dependent and, therefore, variable. Mortgage tax, building permit and sales tax revenue are all likely to decline as interest rates rise.

Essentially, the city’s future finances are likely to involve a rising cost structure, flat to slightly increasing property tax levy and declining “discretionary” revenue.

In 2014, the city recorded a retirement healthcare liability of $78 million, up 18 percent from $66 million in 2013. This increase was driven largely by an increase in expected longevity. This liability represents the current value of the estimated future payments for retiree healthcare.  This is an unfunded liability, which means that the city has reserved no money to pay for expected future expenses. We pay each year’s retirement healthcare benefits out of operating revenue, and we are not alone—most municipalities carry similar unfunded liabilities. Since 2008, the earliest year for which numbers are available, our unfunded liability has grown an average of 7 percent annually.

To put the $78 million in perspective, Rye collects roughly $22 million in property taxes each year. If we were to shut down City Hall and all of its services—no trash collection, road repair, etc.—and somehow continue to collect property taxes, it would take us 3.5 years to fully fund this liability.

I’m not advocating for setting aside current revenues to fund this future liability, but I am suggesting that we begin to think about reducing the city’s commitment to financing 100 percent of retirement healthcare costs for future employees.

Even if imposed starting today, the impact of this change wouldn’t be felt for roughly two decades. Continuation of the status quo will allow retirement healthcare to consume an ever-increasing portion of our operating budget, and there may come a point when our options will become even less palatable: large property tax increases above the tax cap, reductions in services and/or utilizing contractors rather than employees. This is an issue that requires long-term advance planning to head off significant future problems.

Killian-2-(2)

Column: A Healthier Sound Shore

I am constantly amazed at how hard local people work to better the lives of others in our community, especially our children. Last week, I was part of a small group that presented Rye’s new drug and alcohol coalition to the Rye YMCA’s Healthy Sound Shore Coalition at its monthly meeting. Although I have known of the Coalition for a while and previously attended a meeting on substance abuse, I had no idea that they were responsible for launching so many other initiatives in our community and beyond, initiatives that have made a real difference. The coalition, started almost 10 years ago, was initially part of a national program called Activate America and focused on fighting obesity and chronic diseases. Community leaders from non-profits, local government, schools, healthcare, media and business carry out the mission of the group now called Healthier Sound Shore, HSS. The goal is to “create long-term sustainable improvements in lifestyle and health” in Rye, Rye Neck, Harrison, Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Port Chester. The main programs include Safe Routes to School, SRTS, Complete Streets, Edible Gardens, School Wellness and Active Outdoors. SRTS has had numerous forums and workshops on traffic safety and its environmental and health benefits. These forums have spawned SRTS committees in Rye and Mamaroneck school districts. In Rye, our committee was responsible for the Boston Post Road diet and the Rye High School Heads Up Poster Contest that raises awareness of distracted walking and driving and helped Rye City get a $224,000 federal grant to fund infrastructure improvements solely focused on making walking or biking to school more safe.

HSS helped to promote a Complete Streets policy in Rye and worked with NYU urban planning graduate students to develop a specific strategy for Rye, Larchmont and Mamaroneck that included the Forest Avenue Sharrows. A Complete Streets policy means to “routinely design and operate the entire right of way to enable safe access for all users.”

The Rye City Council approved a policy requiring we take Complete Streets into consideration before any transportation project is undertaken.

The Edible Gardens program has received grants to fund pilot garden programs in our elementary schools and at Rye Nature Center.

School Wellness activities include a cross district Wellness Committee that includes parent representatives from schools in Rye, Rye Neck, Larchmont, Mamaroneck and Harrison and has successfully obtained $30,000 in grants by the Y for school programs and staff training.

Numerous Active Outdoors initiatives help promote physical activity, family time and youth development.

Kudos to Dinah Howland of the Rye YMCA and the entire HSS team for the terrific job they have done at harnessing the creativity and passion throughout our community on these important issues.

Being a member of City Council comes with few perks, however, occasionally we do get to do some fun stuff.  Last month, I participated in a day-long workshop for teen girls in Westchester called “Running and Winning” designed to create awareness of the need for more girls and women to develop their leadership potential by getting involved in their communities and possibly running for elected office. It was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Westchester, American Association of University Women of Westchester and the YWCA of White Plains. I was one of 16 female elected officials that included state senators and assemblywomen, mayors, and City Council and Town Board members. Forty-five juniors and seniors representing 21 high schools in Westchester participated. Three girls from schools in my district attended the workshop, two from Rye Country Day School, Jinjer Pearce (Tuckahoe) and Maddy Cooper (Harrison) and Alison Beal from Rye Neck. After each elected official gave a short talk on their backgrounds and how they got started in politics, the girls were divided into teams and planned a mock political campaign. The students decided among themselves who was the candidate, campaign manager, speech writer, finance director and publicity director, and were given the environment as a campaign theme. The officials were there just to offer advice if they needed or wanted it.

It was inspiring to see the girls working together as a team to create their campaigns that they presented at the end. When I asked what surprised them the most about what they learned, they said it was that you didn’t have to study political science to get involved in politics. Hopefully, having more young women understand that anyone can get involved will help increase the number of women in elected office.  Women count for more than 50 percent of the population but represent only 20 percent of the U.S. Senate seats, 18 percent of the U.S. House seats and 22 percent of legislative and top executive positions at the state level including five governors. I am happy to say that in Rye, three of our seven City Council members are women.

A few weeks ago, I got to be part of the mayor’s meeting with second graders from Milton School who came to City Hall to learn more about the history of Rye and the role of the mayor. They asked a lot of interesting questions, some very interesting. But they were most excited about sitting up on the dais and hitting the gavel if they were lucky enough to sit in the mayor’s chair. It was priceless.

Coincidentally, one of the second grade teachers had a daughter who attended the teen workshop and told her mom how inspiring it was.

Then last week, I was lucky enough to take part in a ceremony for three and four year olds from Port Chester Head Start who graduated from the Rye Arts Center art and music program. It was heartwarming to see the children dressed in their finest with their smiling excited faces while they received their diplomas and posed for their parents in the audience. It was precious.

laura

Column: Some final answers before the budget vote

 

 

Next Tuesday, May 19, the citizens of Rye will vote on the proposed 2015-2016 school budget. This budget maintains the excellent school system we value here in Rye.

Over the last several years, the Rye City Board of Education and administration have instituted many cost saving measures: eliminating 61.9 full-time equivalent positions, capturing savings through scheduling efficiencies and consortium bidding, and negotiating sustainable labor contracts. The superintendent has advised that additional cuts would affect the quality of the educational program. Since 2010, the district has applied reserves to the operating budget, reducing reserves by 30 percent, in order to keep tax increases low given the high rate of enrollment in our schools, historically high pension rates and the 151 unfunded mandates passed down to local school districts by Albany. In my last column, I answered some questions that had come up and as you might expect, people responded with a few more questions for me to answer.

 

What are the reserve funds? How many does Rye’s school district have? Can you use more of that money to fund operating expenses?  

The district has four reserve funds: undesignated/unassigned, tax certiorari, Employee Retirement System and capital. State law allows the undesignated/unassigned reserve to be 4 percent of total budget and it is. The district calculates the level for the tax certiorari fund based on the liability of the tax certiorari claims filed against the City of Rye. This is done so tax certiorari refunds are paid out of this reserve rather than through borrowing or depleting the operating budget. The district has deployed reserves to meet operating expenses and keep tax increases low. Now, in order to maintain the fiscal health of the district, it is necessary to decrease dependency on reserves. Next year, the district plans to use $1.3 million in reserves in the proposed budget, down from $2.7 million this year.

 

How was the budget reduced during the budget process and are there any other cuts to be found?

The budget process starts for the administration in the fall; the superintendent’s recommended budget was presented in February. Since then, Rye received a small increase of $84,000 in state aid. Several talented, veteran teachers have announced their retirements. Staffing with existing teachers brought down the cost of the elementary music and art components of full-day kindergarten from initial estimates. The board and administration have spent a great deal of time delving into the expenses and revenues of the district and do not believe there are any other cuts to be realized. The superintendent has advised that any further cuts would affect the quality of the educational program.

The potential cuts the district laid out are alarming. Why did the district release what would happen if the override isn’t successful? 

The board is, and should be, transparent with the community. In order for the citizens of Rye to make informed decisions about the budget vote, the community needs to know what will happen if the budget is voted down on Tuesday, May 19. Certainly, if $3 million in cuts were to be made to the school system, our community should know in advance the gravity of these cuts and how they would affect the educational program. After years of cost control measures, cutting an additional $3 million means cutting into parts of the program that have defined Rye’s schools such as class size, foreign language offerings in the elementary schools as well as in the middle school and high school, the Writing Mentor Program, athletics, extracurriculars, and aides in our schools, libraries and computer programs.

 

At the end of the fiscal year what happens if there is money leftover?

The school district’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. By law, the school district cannot end the year with a negative balance. On June 30, any funds that have not been expended are returned to the reserves. Since 2010, the district has been using reserves to help close the funding gap created by increasing enrollment, historically high pension rates, declining state aid and increasing unfunded mandates from the state. So, whatever funds are left simply indicate that we have used fewer reserves than estimated. Reserves have decreased by 30 percent so it should be clear that the budgets have been tight.

 

Several years ago there was a Special Education Consultant Report. Have you captured the possible savings? 

In 2012, the district received the District Management Council’s report and since then all possible savings have been implemented and realized. For instance, the district now uses a DMC software program, which has allowed the district to maximize staffing.

 

Why did special education costs increase? 

The special education budget is built differently than the other parts of the budget. The district builds this budget by looking at each student’s Individualized Educational Plan, IEP, and accounting for those expenses. As our enrollment has grown, so has our special education population. Each May, the community votes on a budget and then typically more children move to Rye, some of who may require special education services. By law, those expenses must be funded even if it means using funds allocated to another part of the budget.

 

How does the compensation of Rye administrators compare to our peer districts? 

A Journal News article on March 27, comparing administrative costs of school districts in the Lower Hudson Valley, shows the Rye City School District’s administrators’ costs to be in the bottom half.

 

How do New York school districts compare to Connecticut or Massachusetts school districts in terms of funding?

One cannot compare the funding of New York school districts to Connecticut or Massachusetts school districts.  In Connecticut and Massachusetts, school districts do not pay into Social Security for their teachers and receive more state education aid. In Connecticut, school districts pay only a small portion of pension costs; the state budget pays the rest—unlike New York.  In Massachusetts, pension costs are borne primarily by teachers who contribute 11 percent of salary throughout the length of their teaching careers, again—unlike New York.

We are proud to say that on Tuesday, Rye High School earned U.S. News & World Report’s Gold Medal designation. Once again, Rye High School is ranked No. 2 in New York and No. 4 in the nation among open enrollment schools. Rye has a great school district; this budget maintains it. I hope you will spend a few minutes going over the focus on excellence budget newsletter that was mailed to all Rye residences this week and please be sure to vote on May 19.

LAURA-BRETT2

Column: The need for a historic district in Rye

At this week’s City Council meeting we will consider creating a downtown historic district.  It has been a long path to get to this point, but the creation of historic districts has the potential to provide real benefits to the community. If a historic district is created, owners of historic buildings would be provided with a tax incentive to preserve and renovate, rather than tear down and rebuild, historic properties. Preservation of historic buildings provides a tangible value to the community, by providing visible markers of our history. These memories of our history help build and retain a sense of community. Additionally, historic districts have been proven to increase property values for buildings within the historic district.

It has taken many years and several steps to get to the point at which we are designating historic districts which provide tax incentives for historic preservation. The Landmarks Advisory Committee began considering how to prevent “tear downs” in Rye more than six years ago. The committee reviewed and evaluated tear down laws in other local communities and their effectiveness in preventing homes from being torn down to make way for newer, usually bigger, homes.

Because property owners generally retain the ultimate right to make changes to their property, tear down laws in other communities tend to have the impact of delaying, rather than preventing, tear downs.

As a next step, the Landmarks Advisory Committee considered whether the city could provide tax incentives for preservation of properties. It learned that New York State Law allows such tax incentives for preservation of historic structures. Communities can pass a law which provides that it can phase in tax increases resulting from renovating a historic property if the renovations are consistent with the goal of historic preservation and approved by a local preservation board.  The City Council passed changes to the city code providing such tax incentives in late 2013.  Passage of this change to the city code, however, was not the final step.

The law requires that this benefit is for properties that are either landmarked or historic properties within a historic district. The next step, therefore, is for the City Council to designate historic districts, after which historic properties within the historic district will be eligible for tax incentives if they make historically sensitive renovations to the property.

Recently I have heard increasing complaints about the number of tear downs in Rye. This change will not stop tear downs. This law, however, can be used as a tool to encourage renovations of historic properties but only if the City Council begins designating historic districts.

The downtown historic district is an area that needs this incentive. There are many buildings in the downtown that date to the late 1800s and early 1900s. In fact, the first election in Rye was held in the building that still stands on the corner of Theo Fremd and Purchase Street.

Our downtown business district is one of the most charming downtowns in our area; that charm is a result of the mix of historic buildings that still line Purchase Street. For example, consider the Arcade building (which houses Arcade Books), the Woodrow Jewelers building as well as the former Walgreens (now Le Pain Quotidien and other stores), all of which contribute to the charm of our downtown. And the community came out in full force to support the Smoke Shop because of the small town feel it contributes to our community, some of which is attributable to the historic character of its building. All of these buildings will need renovation—some sooner than others—and we want to provide incentives to property owners to renovate these buildings in a way that preserves their historic character.

As the City Council considers whether to approve the designation of this historic district, some questions will arise regarding whether the district is too big, whether the law provides sufficient guidance as to which properties qualify and the discretion given to the committee.

I am hopeful we can overcome all these questions and approve the historic district. The entire city will benefit if we preserve the history which surrounds us. If this historic district is successful, perhaps other neighborhoods can seek such a designation. It might be too optimistic to hope this small change can turn the tear down tide, but that was hope of the Landmarks Committee when we started this process.

 

This column was written in advance of the May 6 Rye City Council meeting. 

laura

Column: Budget answers you need to know

The 2015-2016 school budget is a big topic around Rye. A few questions seem to come up frequently, so I’d like to take the opportunity to address them here.

What does the budget include and why do we need an override?
The budget maintains Rye’s educational program. It preserves the academic excellence and rigor our community values. It permits modest staff increases at the high school to alleviate current large class sizes in math, additional science class sections, and guidance help for the larger numbers of students who will apply to college next year and in years to come based on current enrollment. It includes full-day kindergarten. Monetarily, these are very modest changes and the district would still need an override without them. The budget maintains our existing program and reduces use of reserves to fund operating expenses. After decreasing the reserves by 30 percent, we can no longer depend on them to fill the budget gap created by increased enrollment, lower state aid, and increasing pension costs and unfunded state mandates. Continued reliance on reserves would threaten our triple Moody’s Aaa rating and would concern our auditors.

Without an override, $3 million will need to be cut from the budget. Unlike surrounding districts, Rye’s annual budget increases were small, even before the 2012 tax cap. At that time, the district had substantial reserves, a portion of which the board allocated to fund some operating costs each year for the last several years to keep tax increases low. This was in response to requests from the community to spend down our reserves. Over the last several years, the district has instituted many cost savings to help control budget growth (see my March 20 column). We instituted efficiencies in scheduling and bidding, and approximately 62 full-time positions were eliminated. In order maintain the current educational program, the 2015-2016 school budget represents a 4.4 percent increase over the current year’s budget.

 

I have heard our enrollment is higher than other districts-and our enrollment is not expected to grow next year. What are the facts about enrollment?
Since 2002 Rye’s enrollment has risen 27 percent while enrollment within Westchester County has risen just 2 percent. Since 2008, Rye’s enrollment has increased 12.4 percent while Westchester’s enrollment has actually declined slightly. The district has maintained class sizes in the elementary schools, through the use of reserves, when our student population has grown by adding a section when we exceeded class size guidelines. When an additional half team was needed at the middle school, the district funded it out of reserves. An effort to “make do” at the high school resulted in class sizes of 30 and 31 students in math and other disciplines. Additional teachers are needed to alleviate overcrowding in those classes.

Unfortunately, our demographic predictions have proved to be unreliable. The administration uses enrollment projections to plan the number of classes in the coming year, yet over the summer, more children move into Rye than were predicted. In fact, last year actual total enrollment exceeded our predicted enrollment by 141 students—a 4.46 percent increase. This year was the first year elementary enrollment has been accurately predicted since 2004. The district has used three different demographers to increase the accuracy of the predictions—to no avail. What we do know is that every year, except one in the last 10 years, we receive more students than the predicted number. We can no longer continue to dip into reserves to fund teacher salaries to accommodate these unanticipated students.

 

There is a lot of new construction in Rye. What effect does the building of new houses have on the school budget?
Each May, the citizens of Rye vote on a school budget. That sets the amount of money the schools receive from taxpayers for the next school year. That amount remains unchanged until the next annual budget vote. In the meantime, if a new home is built and higher taxes assessed, the school district does not receive additional funds. Instead, that newly-built home pays a higher proportion of the voter-approved school budget, which slightly lessens the proportion the rest of the community pays. Since there are many of us, we don’t notice the offset. The notion that the district is getting thousands of dollars from tax assessments on new construction outside of the budget is false.

All the building is resulting in more enrollment growth. An older home, with no school age children, is often replaced by a much larger one housing three or four children who attend Rye schools. Likewise, when a lot is subdivided into two, there may be two new families with children in the schools instead of one. The school district needs to educate these additional children at the cost of $22,000 per child—$88,000 for a family with four children—far surpassing the amount of tax money that property contributes to the school budget.

 

Can the community have a second chance?
Another opportunity to pass a “slimmed down” budget is just not realistic. The tax cap legislation dramatically changed the possibility of a second chance. If the override is not successful, the board will present the voters with another budget in June, but due to the new catastrophic consequences of a second failure, (0 percent increase, a flat budget requiring $5 million in cuts) the board would put forward a tax cap-compliant budget.

A tax cap-compliant budget would mean $3 million in cuts to program. That is equal to 40 teachers or roughly half of all elementary classroom teachers in the district. It would mean substantially larger classes at all schools, eliminating aides in the elementary school other than lunchtime supervision, eliminating Foreign Language in the elementary schools, eliminating introductory Latin, French and Mandarin in the high and middle schools, eliminating the Writing Mentor program, eliminating computer aides and library aides. It will significantly affect the educational program. The board and administration do not believe these cuts are in the educational best interest of the students of Rye.

The board and administration have worked to reduce the budget during the budget process through much debate, refining numbers as more information became available and with input from the community. The budget to be voted on by the public on May 19 has been reduced to a 4.4 percent budget-to-budget increase from the 5.1 percent budget-to-budget increase originally proposed.

 

Does an override this year mean we have to keep overriding the budget in the future?
No. In fact, the administration, at the school board’s request, demonstrated that if the school district secures an override this year, we would be tax cap-compliant next year with very conservative budget assumptions. The idea is to do this correction to move away from using the reserve funds so we can remain tax cap-compliant in the future.

In sum, the board and the administration want to preserve Rye’s award-winning school district, which is why we adopted the 2015-2016 school budget and are presenting it to the voters on May 19. I hope this has helped to answer some of the community’s questions regarding the school budget. On behalf of the Board of Education, thank you for your continued support of our schools.