By Doug Foster
The Village of Nyack is rich with assets such as our vibrant downtown, scenic waterfront, diverse residents, strong sense of community, and a wonderful mix of residential, commercial and institutional development. Unfortunately, over the decades the Village has developed a structural deficit, where our tiny, balkanized tax base is unable to sustain our assets.
The Village is “asset rich, cash poor.” Our survival strategy has been to borrow from our infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, buildings, etc.) in the form of deferred maintenance.
Let’s treat this situation as a call to action. We need a Village Board that is willing to work together and tap into our amazing pool of residents to identify problems, find solutions, and implement them. If we are smart and focused we can regain a sustainable budget and build a better community.
As a starting point, I have outlined a Five Point Action Plan to move Nyack forward.
Statement of the Problem
In a nutshell, the Village (tax base) is too small. The $2.7 million in property tax revenues are not sufficient to sustain our regional assets such as the downtown commercial district and Memorial Park. The only way to change the game is to consolidate with South and/or Upper Nyack. We truly are one community; the municipal boundaries are arbitrary. Memorial Park and the downtown are shared by all residents in the three villages.
I have talked with many residents in both South and Upper Nyack and there is strong support for the idea of becoming one Village. There are reservations, most notably concerning taxes and services, but I am hopeful that we can build a collaborative effort to investigate the feasibility of One Nyack. A combined Village would have more than 12,000 residents, and would equal the size of Tarrytown’s tax base, which enjoys a robust economy.
Without a Tarrytown-sized tax base, the Village’s budget can’t provide the resources required to maintain our urban core. We don’t have the bonding power for major investments like a parking garage. We can’t afford staff with any management or development experience.
The way to dig out of this situation is for an experienced and motivated Board to rally equally experienced and motivated residents (of which there are many. We would implement a clear plan to reduce costs/inefficiencies, increase revenues (as little as possible through taxes), and invest in key infrastructure.
A Five Point Action Plan to get us going
- Deliberative process– The Village Board can only make good decisions with an organized and well-crafted process. The public process can be cumbersome, and if it isn’t careful, the Board can easily waste its precious time on reacting to momentary issues. I will work with the new Mayor to establish a rational, deliberative process so that the Board can properly manage the Village.
- Board Roles – Each board member should have specific responsibilities for key management areas such as economic development, budgeting, parks/recreation (see previous post).
- The Board agenda should be set by Monday or Tuesday, posted on the Village website. Board members should have all required materials well in advance so they can prepare.
- Ministerial actions, including certain permits, should be handled at a staff level (see previous post). Board meetings should spend as much time as possible on the larger, important issues.
- Public comment managed with time limits and proper protocol (respectful).
- Consolidation — Did you know that there is a state-wide initiative to streamline NY’s 4,720 local government entities? The Nyacks should apply for a New York State Local Government Efficiency Grant. Dozens of grants have been given to Villages ranging from $25,000 to $50,000. I would seek a combined application with the Villages of South and Upper Nyack to investigate the feasibility of consolidation. I propose we establish a collaborative committee with representatives from the three villages to write the grant.
- Police consolidation – As we are pulling together a grant proposal, we can research other avenues to consolidate. Nyack residents pay about $2 million per year for police protection, whereas, South Nyack residents about $1.2 million. We should investigate the feasibility of using our tax dollars for a more local police force. Consolidation would be beneficial for South Nyack by broadening their base, which places a heavy burden on property owners, representing 43% of their taxes.
- Openness and transparency – An ambitious and inclusive agenda requires communication channels to the public. There are simple things to be done to give people access to what’s going on including:
- Website – Nyack’s website needs to store agendas, minutes, calendars, notices, forms/applications, etc. It needs to be a content management system (CMS) easy enough for staff to maintain. As a web developer, I will volunteer to oversee a small task force to build a new site. I have already started this process.
- Television – Many people would like to see meetings without leaving their homes. The Village should record the meetings for distribution through Cablevision and Verizon. Orangetown and many other local governments already do it, and it isn’t difficult.
- Mailing – Like the iContact list we established at Nyack First, the Village should have a mailing list to update those who want to be kept up to date.
- Establish management processes — Managing a $5 million budget and vast capital assets properly requires dedicated managers and a clear process.
- General Management — It is challenging to manage with a part time Mayor, no Village Manager, and no department heads with management training. The very first thing to do is to establish weekly management meetings between the Mayor and department heads. A working committee should be established to find alternatives ranging from contracted assistance to a village manager.
- Capital Budget – We need to implement a capital budgeting process, where there is a long-term plan establishing a prioritized list for big ticket infrastructure projects. This should include streets, sidewalks, parks and the marina. Re-establishing the 50-50 program, where the Village shares 50% of the cost with a property owner, does not prioritize repairs by need, but rather, by who happens to be aware of the program. A possible alternative would be to conduct a sidewalk audit, prioritize necessary repairs, and establish a village wide contract at a wholesale price.
- Board Oversight — A Village Board Committee should be dedicated to oversee Budget and administration(see previous post). We need to take a sober look at the budget, deconstruct it, and create a process so that budget items can be prioritized. Currently, the Board has several public meetings to review the budget once a year, which is commendable in its transparency. Unfortunately, this process results in taking last year’s budget, and marginally increasing or decreasing each line item. What is needed is structural changes that will take a more sustained and deep analysis.
- Economic Development – We need to increase ratables, add more housing, streamline the development process, and do a better job promoting our downtown.
- Streamline development review process – Establish a Review Coordinating Committee made up of an elected official, Building Department Staff, and Chairs of key Boards. It will review and assist large scale projects through the process. Developers don’t mind paying higher “pre-development” costs if there is a predictable path to completion. There is nothing developers hate more than unpredictability.
- Downtown marketing Coordinating Committee – There are several organizations that help market Nyack’s downtown, but there is no easy way to coordinate with Village Hall. We should create a standing committee to coordinate all interested organizations. This should include representatives from all relevant organizations like the Chamber of Commerce. This committee would coordinate all Village related planning and activities, and would streamline the permitting process and marketing such as signage, banners and advertising.
- Streetscape improvements – Downtown is looking like a 40-year old version of Urban Renewal. It was ugly to begin with, now it is ugly and old. It needs a major investment based on our streetscape improvement plan, which has nice sidewalks, lighting, signage, sitting areas, etc. A beautiful streetscape makes a dramatic difference in creating an appealing place to come and hang out. Fortunately, the streetscape improvement initiative is moving along. When the engineering drawings are complete, the Village needs to expedite the process of defining and implementing the first phase of the project.
- Riverspace — The “superblock” is located at the heart of our downtown and underutilized. It is an unfortunate result of an incomplete, urban renewal project. I strongly support the Riverspace concept (an arts center with mixed use redevelopment), and believe it is a priority. The main issue is scale and feasibility. A large and complicated project such as this takes a lot of time and ongoing work and communication, and the Village needs to dedicate both elected officials and staff time to help move the process along.
If I am elected as Trustee, I plan on rolling up my sleeves and get some work done. My background as a professional urban planner gives me a unique ability to help the Village achieve a sustainable budget and a solid, long range plan for our future.
Doug Foster is a candidate for trustee in the Village of Nyack.