Thursday, November 18, 2010

Cupcakes, Kids, Volunteers, Civility and Respect

You would have to be living in a cave to not have heard the story about Michael Wolfenson, the New Castle Town Councilman/cupcake vigilante. I know Michael, and I am quite sure that if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't; or at least not the same way. I would like to think that the boy’s parents would handle it differently next time too. The family friend who called the paper 5 weeks later too. Everyone would take a mulligan on this one if they could.

The national and even international media has made this into a story about the big bad politician picking on the little kids. To me, that is not what this story is really about. This is a story about civility and the public reaction to the story. Michael Wolfenson, regardless of your political leanings, regardless of your opinion on his local votes, regardless of where you stand on the Reader’s Digest site and regardless of where you stand on the great cupcake capitalism debate deserves to be treated with respect and civility. (Make no mistake about it, the boys also deserve respect, civility and whatever accommodation is appropriate for 13 year old boys.)

Michael Wolfenson is essentially a volunteer trying to help his neighbors, friends and town residents the best he can. Michael Wolfenson got involved in town politics because of an overwhelming desire to honor local residents killed in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. He spent years fighting for a singular cause because he knew in his heart it was the right thing to do. If you have been to the 9/11 memorial at Gedney Park, the very park in which this incident took place, you would agree his efforts were well worth it. He simply wants to help the community. You may not always agree with him on what is right, but his intentions are good.

I have said this in the past, but it is worth repeating here. I can assure you that neither he nor the other town board members are in it for the money. Town Board members are paid less than $10,000 a year. (The Supervisor gets approximately 5 times that amount.) My guess is that that works out to way less than minimum wage when you factor in the time they contribute.

We need people like Michael Wofenson in this town. We need volunteers. We need people to be on the School Board, the Town Board, the Zoning Board, the Planning Board, the Board of Assessment Review, the Board of Architectural Review, the Conservation Board, the Downtown Steering Committee, the Environmental Review Board, the Millwood Task Force, the Sustainability Board, the Recreation Commission, the PTA, New Castle Cares, LWV, the Horace Greeley Scholarship Fund, the Chappaqua School Foundation, the boards and coaches of AYSO, CYSC, GYL and NCBSA, and all the other ways in which neighbors volunteer to help neighbors and contribute to the community.

Who in their right mind would want to volunteer for the community when the reaction to all they do is personal attacks? Playing “gotcha journalism” with local volunteers does nothing other than to dissuade them from continuing public service. I know, I am one of those volunteers. I am a member of the CCSD Board of Education. I have also coached countless of my children’s sports teams. I have gotten the emails from the parents who use stop watches to track their children’s playing time or from the parents say, “I don’t want to tell you how to coach, but…” and then proceed to tell you how to coach.

During the difficult budget discussions of the last few years I have heard residents call the teachers names, the board members names and each other names when they disagree with their point of view. How is that going to help the situation? Ad hominen attacks are unnecessary and counter-productive. There are no "bad guys" in the budget debate. There are differing groups that need to recognize that the collective long-term success is contingent upon short-term sacrifice. By all.

Heck, I have seen residents of New Castle make anonymous comments picking on students for making Cum Laud, for making speeches at graduation and for their sports efforts. Why? These are kids, not much older than the cupcake entrepreneurs simply trying to find their voice, to plot a way through this crazy thing called life.

Last spring, I thought long and hard prior to filing to run for re-election to the School Board. The primary reason I hesitated at all was the consideration of being a public figure in this day and age. Heaven forbid you make a mistake, and look what happens. Add in the people who hide behind the anonymity of the internet to make personal attacks and you too would question your decision to volunteer.

Know this, to be a public figure, even if it is just a volunteer here in Chappaqua, means having to endure and come to terms with personal attacks. But it should not have to. If we as a community want to continue to attract residents to our community and, as important, to attract volunteers from among those residents, we need to treat each other and those volunteers with respect and civility. Challenge the ideas; don’t attack the person.

The sense I get is that in our rush to judgment, our rush to attack, our desire to bring down the person we fail to recognize that the system is strengthened by having multiple and alternative candidates, multiple and alternative volunteers. We are chasing those potential contributors away. You can’t “vote da bums out” if you have no alternatives bums for whom to vote.

Let us as a community rise above. Let us find a way to recognize and applaud these children’s entrepreneurial spirit and let them continue to dream big while also appreciating the good intentions, the time and effort that Michael Wolfenson and all the various organization volunteers give to the community.



Monday, November 1, 2010

Town Law 265

The usual disclaimers apply. I am not speaking for the School Board, I am speaking as an individual. (Refrigerate after opening. Shake well before each use. Your mileage may vary. Past performance means bupkis.)

To some this may sound odd or not be obvious, but I believe the decision on whether or not to sign this petition in support of Town Law 265 is potentially a very big decision with far reaching implications, some not so obvious and some not so direct. I am not aware of the Board of Education ever having signed a petition. Should we decide to sign this petition, we should do so aware of all the issues, not just, "do we support this petition?" Are we setting precedent, are we overstepping our charge and are we meddling in the town's affairs? Having said that, I also believe that there are times to make exceptions, times to set precedent and times to make long term decisions that are not necessarily in your short term best interest. And, as my board colleagues know, as a Board member, former business owner and father, the phrase I rail against more than any is, "Because that is the way we have always done it."

When considering this vote this morning, the first thing I had to consider was the basic question of the merits of the petition. Regardless of any other implications, if I did not agree with the petition's premise, there was no need to waste time on other considerations. What is this petition asking? As I understand it, and as I considered it, we were simply being asked to sign a petition as a landowner who falls within certain boundaries (100') in relation to the proposed zoning change at the former Reader's Digest site. In essence, this petition asks if we support imposing a requirement of a super majority vote from the lead agency (the Town Board) in order to approve the zoning change. It is not asking for our opinion on the zoning change.

As a school board member this entire process with respect to the proposed zoning changes and redevelopment of the former Reader's Digest site has been in one sense surrealistic. I ran for the school board not the town board. I could easily have decided to focus my volunteer efforts in support of this community by helping to govern the entire town, not just the school district. While I may decide to do that at some point in the future, I prefer to focus on our schools, our children, their education and by proxy, the real estate values that are driven in large part by the excellence of our schools. That excellence does not come without significant cost.

The converse is true too. The Supervisor and members of the Town Board chose to run for the Town Board for their own personal reasons, and not the school board. Yet, here we both find ourselves mired in each other's business.

Parenthetically, I would like to add that whether I agree or disagree with all the decisions made by the Town Board from garbage pickup to Gazebo building to their efforts to revitalize downtown is irrelevant. This to me is about one issue, the district and its taxpayers to whom I owe a fiduciary duty. I would also like to go on record as stipulating that regardless of agreement, I believe the Town Board has always acted with the best of intentions and tried to do what they thought was best for the town. While their role is not purely voluntary, the small amount they are paid will never be just compensation for the efforts they put in and the inappropriate personal attacks they take. Challenge their positions if you wish, but do not question their integrity. Do not lose sight of the fact that like the School Board, the Town Board members are our neighbors.

So why is this surrealistic? Because, with this decision, the Town Board is actually, in addition to affecting the Town of New Castle, having a direct affect on and potentially creating long term cost and therefore program affects on Chappaqua Central School District residents. If the project gets approved with its present proposed structure, essentially what is happening is the Town Board is voting to have the CCSD taxpayers take the risk of significantly increased costs, potentially millions of dollars. So, while the town's upside in terms of dollars is, by their own estimates, $200,000, there are very likely scenarios whereby the town would increase its net income by $200,000 while at the same time the CCSD taxpayers would have increased costs in a rollover budget (all programs and offerings remain the same as previous budget) of MILLIONS of dollars. To the taxpayers that overlap the CCSD and the Town of New Castle the Board they elected to represent them on town issues is also acting counter to their interests with significantly more at stake. An overlapping taxpayer could have additional costs that are significant while the Town can rightfully claim that they lowered their portion of the bill. I firmly believe that the one of the primary factors the Town Board should consider when deciding the zoning change request is its potential effect on the CCSD taxpayer.

One way to look at this, and to me the appropriate way to view this as a school board member, CCSD taxpayer and resident of New Castle, is that a vote by the Town Board to approve this project in its present form is simply saying that they have not considered the CCSD taxpayer. But to do that is to ignore the fact that 90% of the CCSD taxpayers are New Castle residents.

And, what has yet to be mentioned through all this is that the 10% of CCSD taxpayers who are in the town of Mt. Pleasant essentially are having their taxes potentially raised without representation. That was sort of the problem 240 years ago. Who but the Board of Education is looking out for the Mt. Pleasant taxpayers in the CCSD?

I recognize too that the Town represents those who live on the West side of town who are not residents of the CCSD. To a west sider who does not live anywhere near the project and will not be affected by the traffic, the noise or any other change, this is simply about money. Their money. They want the project approved because it may have a positive effect on the tax levy for them. If I did not want to factor in some sort of value in helping my fellow New Castle townies, I would feel the same way. One thing I am not really sure of though is the direct effect on any one west side taxpayer, or for that matter any New Castle taxpayer.

Assuming that the discussion regarding twice a week trash pickup is a good proxy for the amount of money benefiting the town, on a per resident basis, if the redevelopment of the former Reader's Digest site yields an additional $200,000 of revenue to the town, that would be approximately $37 per household if allocated consistent with the trash savings. But, I do not think that is actually how it would work. I am pretty sure it is a function of the assessed value of the house and the equalization rate. Simplified, the higher the value of the house, the greater the savings. Lower valued houses would save less than the $37.

So part of the surrealistic aspect of this is that there are residents of New Castle who are not part of the CCSD who have interests that are not necessarily aligned with the 90% of CCSD taxpayers who are also New Castle residents, and there are 10% of CCSD taxpayers in Mt. Pleasant who are potentially greatly affected by this that have no representation on the New Castle Town Board making this decision.

Make no mistake about it, there is a risk to the CCSD taxpayer that this zoning decision could have significant negative financial impact (raise taxes or cut programs or both) on the schools. To me, the only question is how to mitigate the risk or return the risk to the developer and not place it on the taxpayer. Some might argue that the risk is not great. Some that it is unbearably immense. While this Board has indicated it believes the risk is immense and likely to happen, our primary concern is on whom is it appropriate to place that risk.

Let me be clear about that. Speaking for myself, but I think consistent with the consensus of the board, the opposition is not to the project per se. The opposition is to the project in its present form. Until the risk of the remaining 119 units that are not either fee simple or part of the settlement stipulation for low income housing is mitigated and assumed by the developer or someone other than the CCSD taxpayer, we are opposed. Quite frankly, while I believe even the stipulation housing should be fee simple, if the units are held to the 20 already proposed or less, I will not oppose it.

Having said all of that, this is clearly a very important decision that needs to be made by the Town Board. I would argue that this is the most important decision made by a New Castle Town Board in generations. This is a decision that will have ramifications and affects, some good and some bad, for years and years to come. It could potentially change the entire character of the town. It could have significant financial impact on residents.

The sudden availability of 179 houses priced between $500,000 and $1 million will certainly have significant impact on current single family homes priced in that range. Town services could be affected as well as local merchants. So, while on the face of it, this is a zoning change request, it is so much more important and far reaching than that. Regardless of what side you fall on, I am safe in assuming you agree that this needs to be considered carefully, thoughtfully and completely.

This, in a long and roundabout way, leads me back to the decision to sign or not. I have previously established that the petition is not asking us to opine on the zoning change, but rather is asking for the Town to have a super majority needed for passage, that in its present form there is significant financial risk to CCSD taxpayers without any offsetting gain and that this is the most important decision the Town will make in generations.

To me, the next step in the decision is to consider any implications to the district itself by the simple act of a signing a petition. Our attorneys have indicated there is not any legal impediment to signing. This is such a unique and special request that our decision either way here is not establishing a precedent other than the board's willingness to consider this request. Finally, I ask myself if there is good reason to sign or not that can be supported either way. As a fiduciary to the district, is either alternative action, sign or decide not to sign or is punting the decision supportable or appropriate.

I am voting to sign the petition. It appears the district falls within the legal boundaries for this petition, we are directly affected by this decision from a financial standpoint as well as the traffic and other logistics of being across the street from this type of development, and I think it is reasonable to ask that a super majority of the Town Board be needed to make such a significant change. We are establishing no district precedent and as a fiduciary to the district including its students and taxpayers, I think I have to act within reason to further the district's interests or to prevent significant harm to our district taxpayers even if we have never done it this way before. To me, taking no action or voting against signing this petition would be proactively not taking a step that can be taken without harm to the district and that would be protecting the district's taxpayers.

Finally, this decision did not come lightly, but ultimately it comes in support of the people we on the School Board represent, the students and taxpayers of the Chappaqua Central School District.