In response to the "we can't afford to live here anymore" cries that reverberated throughout the lead up and eventual defeat of the middle school renovation project, a group of current and former civic leaders hosted a community forum focused on what sort of tax-producing businesses residents might like to see move into town.
Such businesses would soak up and help ease the tax burden on property owners, specifically residential properties.
The forum took place at the New Paltz Community Center last week, with Sally Rhoads -- a longtime resident, former school board president, Elting Memorial Library president and community volunteer -- chosen to facilitate the discussion.
The panel that was put together by Don Kerr -- a school board member and public access co-chair -- was as wide-ranging in politics and personalities as the ensuing discussion. It included former Mayor Jason West; former town Planning Board member Butch Dener; real-estate agent and native New Paltzian Rich Steffens; former Deputy Mayor and co-chair of the Open Space Commission Michael Zierler; town planning board member Jonathan Wright; Guy Kempe, the assistant to former New Paltz Town Supervisor Don Wilen; Kerr; and Michael Swigart, a former school board member who has recently thrown his hat back into the ring for the upcoming school board elections.
"You'll probably never see these names in the same sentence again," joked Kerr at the introduction to the forum.
"Unless in a front page homicide story," retorted Swigart.
"We don't agree on much, but we do agree that we care deeply about New Paltz, its future and that we have an issue that affects us all," Kerr said.
"I disagree with that," joked West.
As a point of reference to leap off from, the panel had put together estimates of how much of the town and village's assessed value is off the tax rolls and had it written on a large sheet of paper. In 2009, the total amount of assessed value in the village equaled 46.59 percent of all assessed value. This, Swigart was quick to point out, "does not even include Woodland Pond, which will make that percentage jump even higher next year."
The town had 8.85 percent off the tax rolls in 2009, again, not including their recent move to purchase 62 acres from John Orcutt Sr. and his partners, nor their purchase of another 50-acre parcel to be placed under conservation easement as part of their open space plan.
Kerr and other panel members were quick to point out that the tax-free parcels "are not our enemies. They are the main reason we chose to live here. These include the Mohonk Preserve, SUNY New Paltz, Ulster County Fairgrounds, our public pool, farmlands, houses of worship, Family of New Paltz. These are all gems. They have a positive effect on our quality of lives, but it also affects us in the sense that we have to absorb the cost of that as homeowners and business owners and we need to find another way to help reduce that burden."
Swigart chimed in and noted that New Paltz's "retail business is thriving, but we have 0 percent of industry in the village and only four parcels in the Town of New Paltz that are industrial or light-industrial. That's what we're missing."
West said that he concurred with Kerr and that from his 15 years of experience as either an appointed member of various commissions and as the mayor of the village. "I've worked with budgets where there is that small sliver that you can play with to try and provide services that people need and that sliver is shrinking."
However, West added that in his estimation "the problem we have with taxes and finance is not insurmountable." He threw out one suggestion that he pushed as mayor, which is to expand and redevelop parcels in the village by rezoning Route 32 North to allow for more businesses with rental units above them in an effort to increase the tax base, the "vibrancy of our downtown and provide more residential rental space."
"I grew up here and what New Paltz offered me was the opportunity to be successful and to raise a family here," Steffens said. "I'm not sure that exists anymore. It's not there for my children, and I think it needs to be there for all of our children. We've become a more elitist community because we cannot offer our children jobs that allow them to be able to afford to live here. I want to see our town be able to offer this generation and the next generation what it offered me."
"This is not a new problem," said Rhoads. "It's a historical problem, and we should have been having this conversation 20 years ago. But unfortunately we didn't and now we're at a crisis point, and I believe that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Good people with good intentions may disagree, but as long as their intentions are for the betterment of our community, then we can work together and solve this."
To that end, panel members and residents threw out suggestions of ways the tax base could be increased. Stewart Glenn said that he felt "frustrated" when he "keeps reading articles in the local paper about solar energy consortiums and other green businesses that are setting up shop in Highland or Kingston. Why are we not inviting them into New Paltz? They have worldwide contracts and offer a wide range of well-paying jobs?"
Town Councilman Jeff Logan concurred. "We should be doing whatever we can to bring in high-tech firms that are part of the fastest growing trend -- the greening of America. Whether it's a company that produces car batteries or solar panels or carbon-fiber body panels ... we need them to help come in and invest in water and sewer infrastructure, which we desperately need. The town does not have its own water supply and the village may soon be losing theirs if New York City goes ahead with plans to shut the aqueduct down to repair it."
Zierler took exception to part of what Logan said by stating that "it's backwards to think that we can entice businesses to come here and pay for infrastructure. Our political leaders have to reach out to the county, state and federal governments to get the real money we need for this infrastructure. Saugerties did it. They brought in tens of millions of dollars from the state and federal government for infrastructure and now have an array of businesses."
Gail Gallerie, who chaired the Citizen's Advisory Committee for the Land Use and Transportation Study concurred. "We have the plans, the studies, what we need and I keep hoping for is the political will to put these plans in action. That's what it comes down to."
There was no shortage of ideas in the crowd as to what they believe might be welcomed businesses, including the high-tech green industries, a for-profit film and video center, a mini-SPAC performance center, a year-round sports complex with a pool, support and expansion of local agriculture via gourmet products and a processing kitchen, incubator businesses that harnessed SUNY graduates, even a lot of "one government" pleas to reduce taxes. Also, Wright has a strong belief that the town, village, school district and SUNY "need to pro-actively work together, in tandem and not separately for all of New Paltz."
Linda Donovan of the town's ZBA said that she felt "our top priority should be to protect the local businesses we have here. That's why there was such great opposition to Crossroads, because it would have impacted the very businesses that are central to our lives, our economy, our tourism."
The next step? Kerr said that they agreed to poll and survey the community.
"We will be setting up a website shortly so that we can launch a survey and get greater input," before their next forum.
In the meantime, anyone with questions, ideas, can e-mail Kerr at email@example.com until the website is up and running.