We all have busy lives and too much to do in too short a time. So I appreciate any residents willing to spend some of that valuable time voicing their beliefs of how to improve the community.
Jerry Lieberman and David Schwartz are two residents in point. Both travel extensively; have families and professional responsibilities and overcrowded schedules as a result. Yet both are taking the time to speak out, attend board meetings and write letters and e-mails to raise awareness and solutions to the serious issues they believe Harrison is facing.
Lieberman has lived in Harrison for 13 years and retired after a long career in finance. Schwartz has lived in Harrison for 11 years and is in commercial real estate development. Both men say they are concerned about what they view as the town’s reactionary responses to issues as opposed to strategic, comprehensive long-term planning.
Lieberman began speaking out about this issue about three years ago, sending 15-20 letters to then Mayor/Supervisor Joan Walsh.
“I was concerned about the upcoming financial crisis and wanted the mayor to think about the impact it was going to have on the town budget and to do a comprehensive financial plan to deal with it,” Lieberman said.
Despite his correspondence, Lieberman said he saw little result.
“I saw a salary freeze and us all having to to the street and that was the extent of the action taken,” he said.
Schwartz expressed the same concerns and has also attending budget meetings while corresponding with town officials.
“There has been a growing level of distress in town that needs to be addressed,” he said. “With constantly rising taxes residents are being forced to sell their homes in a bad market where they are taking a loss to move to somewhere less expensive. That’s just unacceptable.”
Schwartz and Lieberman were hopeful that the new administration under Mayor/Supervisor Ron Belmont would adopt a more strategic approach, but say they haven't seen many changes.
“We gave the new mayor and administration 100 days to see what they would do,” Lieberman said. “We sent the mayor a letter advising him of our concerns but as far as we can see, it’s just been business as usual with no change in thinking.”
The men say they are part of a growing rank and file among residents who share anger over the way the town is being governed.
“Wherever we go we hear the same anger among our neighbors and friends. Residents are demanding real and radical changes. They can no longer sit back and watch continued heavy tax increases as the value in their homes go down,” Lieberman explained.
Lieberman and Schwartz cite six issues they feel the administration needs to address immediately.
The first is the town’s union contracts that have been in negotiation for more than two years.
“There is no doubt that the biggest issue facing the town right now is our union contracts,” Schwartz said. “The healthcare and pension agreements we have are simply unsustainable. These contracts alone almost ensure continuing tax increases unless something is done.”
Both men said the unions are in no way responsible for the town’s economic woes, but hold that unions—as well as town officials—need to accept that we are facing new economic realities.
“There is nowhere in the private sector now that compares to the union healthcare provisions and it is just no longer viable,” said Schwartz. “In this new economic situation every item on every line needs to be revisited and the $10 million being spent on union healthcare is outrageous.”
Lieberman agrees, adding that the town healthcare benefits as a whole need to be addressed.
“Our board members and town attorneys need to lead by example. They should not be receiving health benefits for what amounts to part-time jobs. We need a results-oriented administration with accountability,” he said.
Lieberman and Schwartz say town leadership also needs to look at other major cost items including sanitation and the police force.
“We need to question each of these major cost items. Should a town of our size be in the sanitation business instead of giving it to professionals? We don’t know the answer to that, but neither do our board members," Lieberman said. "We need a professional study done by a sanitation engineer, so that real strategic decisions based on real dollar and cents can be made.”
Schwartz agrees, citing the board's overall support of a new without a completed capital budget for 2012. He said Councilman Joseph Cannella was the only person on the board who hesitated to bond the expense without knowing how much the town plans to spend in total this year.
“We cringed that the other council members of the board didn’t feel the same way," Schwartz said. "We don’t need to be the leading town in sanitation technology, we need to be the leading town in being the most efficient and well-run town in Westchester.”
Both men say the town should also have a comprehensive study done to determine whether to maintain our own police force or move to community policing, sharing costs with neighboring towns like Mamaroneck.
“We are not saying that having our own force is not the best answer," Lieberman said. "What we are saying is that this is a major taxpayer cost and the issue needs to be studied so we know the answer. We won't know until we look into it.”
Lieberman and Schwartz are also asking for a focused plan to deal with the town’s ballooning debt. They are concerned that the Town Board continues to run up debt—including last month’s approval of just under a $1 million for summer maintenance—without a plan in place for its repayment.
“Our town is in poor financial health and debt has been run up with no game plan for paying it down over a set number of years,” said Schwartz. “This debt will eat us alive if not managed correctly.”
Schwartz uses the town's recent financial crisis as a clear example of our financial vulnerability. He added it's not necessarily the expenditures that have him concerned, it's that he hasn't heard of a finalized plan for how to pay for them.
“We have no financial cushion and we have just seen how vulnerable we are to rising interest rates," he said. "While we recognize that there need to be expenditures made, they need to be made with a plan for their repayment in place prior to the expenditure.”
Both men want to see the same level of planning in place for the revitalization of the downtown area and to attract and maintain our much-needed corporate presence.
“Both issues are talked about continuously and we see piecemeal action taken,” Schwartz said. “We need a comprehensive plan. Our downtown area has been struggling for years and now the tax grievances filed by large corporations are eroding our whole tax base. We have no plan in place to replace that erosion of the tax base. We are still on a very steep slope down and need to do something to turn it around.”
The men offered three suggestions for the town board. The first is to switch from reactionary, tactical thinking to strategic thinking and decision-making. The second is to make use of professional studies by consultants with specific knowledge applicable to the problems at hand. Their third suggestion is the employment of a professional town manager.
“We have reached a point in growth where we can no longer be administered by well-meaning laymen and women without the necessary skills and training,” said Lieberman. “We need a professional who has experience and training in all critical areas and who will be accountable to the taxpayers for the decisions they make.”
Both men have been invited to meet with town officials to air their concerns and say they are looking forward to making their concerns known and seeking real solutions. If those solutions are not forthcoming, Lieberman and Schwartz are prepared to take further action.
“We’re not going away,” said Schwartz. "Residents have seen their home values drop some 30 percent and we are just not going to keep forking out money to watch more of these decisions and their lack of results.”