In the Monty Python film “Life of Brian,” the rebels fighting Pontius Pilate discuss their demand that Pilate dismantle the Roman Imperialist State. “They’ve taken everything we had…and what have they ever given us in return?” says Reg. His comrades reply: the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, wine, public baths, safe streets, peace…
The current campaign against the new zoning law in the Town of Chatham appears to have quieted down as many local residents have taken the opportunity to submit questions to the Town Board and take part in a civilized dialogue in lieu of the heckling and shouting people down that occurred in two meetings at the East Chatham Fire House and the TriVillage Fire House a few weeks ago.
Nevertheless, a tiny handful is still intent on stirring up opposition to the new zoning law — and any restriction on short-term rentals (which are actually not allowed under the current zoning law but will be under the new law) — in order to support candidates to replace the supervisor and two town board seats in November.
So maybe this is a good time to take a step back and ask, as Reg did about the Romans: what has the Chatham Town Board ever done for us? And what will they do if they are re-elected?
When Maria Lull was elected supervisor in November 2015, the Town of Chatham was in a precarious position. Having raided the cookie jar for five years in a row, the previous administration had left the Town a structural budget deficit of $232,000 and unable to pay its bills. This was not widely known because the accounts had not been made public. The Town was run behind closed doors: the Town Board met only once a month, and there was no community involvement in decisions.
In her first year of office, Lull initiated an immediate spending freeze and a review of each department of government. By 2017, the Town budget had been completely restructured to show precisely how Chatham residents’ tax dollars were being spent. Every budget line item was challenged with the goal of minimizing town property taxes without sacrificing services.
As a result, the downward trend in Chatham’s finances was reversed: by 2017 the town was in credit and reserves were steadily rebuilt in 2018 and 2019. The Town is no longer in fiscal stress and is now in a position to spend sustainably on the needs of residents while keeping taxes low and stable.
By 2019, the Town was in a position to establish five reserve funds to ensure that fund balances in main expenditure areas would be enough to mitigate current and future risks and ensure stable tax rates. As well as a contingency and tax stabilization reserves, there are now general reserve funds for Crellin Park, economic development, municipal buildings, and highway equipment.
Having rescued the Town from fiscal distress and lowered its financial risk, the Town was in a position to raise finance on generous terms. In 2018, it secured a bond for $358,000 at an interest rate of 2.378% for highway equipment replacement, so that the Town did not run down the reserves for this purpose (as the previous supervisor had done). In 2019, the Town also secured a 10-year bond to fund improvements to Crellin Park.
The Town has also applied for and accepted over $550,000 in grants for specific projects.
In 2016, Trout Unlimited, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of freshwater streams and rivers, secured grants totaling $294,500 for repairing a collapsed culvert on the Town-owned former railroad bed on Riders Mills Road. The following year, Trout Unlimited secured a grant of $29,953 for the Green Brook Stream Crossing Survey on behalf of the Hudson River Estuary Program.
In 2017, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation provided a $13,000 grant for the electric charging station in the Village of Chatham. In 2018 a new highway heating system was installed through New York State Department of Environmental Conservation grants totalling $40,000, improving air quality for highway crew and saving $5,000-$10,000 on fuel oil every year, while the New York State Department of Transport agreed to provide around $175,000 to reconstruct the intersection of Albany Turnpike and Route 295 and a traffic signal on the East Chatham Bridge.
From the outset, the new administration opened up the Town government to public participation, establishing eight subcommittees staffed by citizens and reporting directly to the Town Board, including the Citizens Finance and Planning Committee, the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Advisory Committee, the Recreation Committee, and the Communications Committee, and, in 2019, an Economic Stabilization Committee, whose brief included looking into the use of the land surrounding the town hall, affordable housing, developing the Route 295 business corridor, and encouraging home occupations.
The Town Board now meets frequently, unlike before. Already in 2016 the Board met 39 times during the year, not counting attendance at subcommittee meetings. The Town Board has recently held four public hearings and listened to public comments at regular Town Board meetings concerning the proposed new zoning law. After collecting many questions and comments from the public at one of the public hearings, the Town Board has responded by making alterations to the proposed law.
And what of the future? What can voters expect the supervisor and the Town Board to do in the next four years if they are re-elected?
There is now a solid institutional basis for sound finance and low taxation; this will continue. Budgets will be balanced, reserves will grow, taxes will be held below the state tax cap.
Projects started from 2016 onward will be completed. The improvements to Crellin Park will be finished and recreational activities for young and old will be expanded.
The Supervisor has succeeded in securing the location of a New York State Police barracks in the Town of Chatham, massively improving police response time and increasing safety for the Town’s citizens, its schools, and its roads.
The Town Board is prioritizing affordable housing for working families and seniors. Over the next four years it will address this issue so that the Town can attract the workforce it needs and keep its senior citizens safe and secure.
Transparency will continue to be upheld as the work of the citizen subcommittees is developed and the open style of government is maintained.
It is vital that voters turn out in large numbers in November to hold on to all the gains they have made since they last turned out in 2015 and ensure that the opaque and financially irresponsible ways of old do not return.
Ken Davies is the former Chief Economist, Asia and Chief China Economist for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London and Hong Kong, Head of Global Relations and Senior Economist in the Investment Division of the Organisation for Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) in Paris, and Senior Economist in the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment at Columbia University in New York City. He was appointed Visiting Professor at the University of Durham Business School in England and is also Honorary Professor in the School of Business and Management at Queen Mary University of London. Ken now lives in Chatham Center.