I love the town of Harrison and the many opportunities it offers. Most of my columns speak of the terrific initiatives, services, events and people who live here and make this town what it is.
But to maintain those opportunities and advantages, we need to pay attention to issues as they arise to keep moving forward.
For that reason, I am raising a sampling of a half dozen of the things I would change in our town, in no particular order, with the hope that they will all hit somebody’s—or everybody’s—immediate ‘to-do’ list and finally get resolved.
Here we go:
1. Lifetime Benefits for Multiple-Term Elected Officials
Tell me anywhere in the private sector where you could work a part-time job, continue with your full-time job at the same time, and then be entitled to health benefits from that part-time job for the rest of your life? Crazy, yet that is exactly what we offer our town council members.
While it's obvious that this benefit will not be voted away from current council members by those same council members, let’s at least stop this insanity for future elected officials so the craziness ends moving forward.
2. The Size of Our School Budget
The Harrison Central School District's budget for 2012-2013 is $104.2 million. Already a mammoth and outrageous budget, this year’s budget included an increase in budget-to-budget spending that resulted in a further tax increase to residents of approximately 3.08 percent.
Louis Wool, Harrison’s superintendent of schools, is paid more than the Chancellor of the New York City public school system—the largest school system in the country with more than 11,600 schools, 1.1 million students and handling a budget of 17 billion dollars.
We need a realistic review of every line item of the school budget and an organized groundswell of public support to refuse to accept this oversized budget in the future.
The real fault lies not with the school administrators, but with voters who continue to rage over these numbers and then do not turn up to the polls on voting day.
3. Lifetime Municipal Appointments
Harrison’s police chief position is a lifetime appointment. The head of our town's police force is not elected by residents, is appointed by a simple majority of the town board, and then can remain in the position for life—regardless of the changes that happen within the force, or within the town.
For a position that holds such gravity in the day-to-day life of residents and the success of the town as a whole, the concept seems ridiculous.
Regardless of the hope that you appoint the right person to the position, that appointment deserves to be reviewed every few years to affirm that the appointee continues to be the person with the best skills and aptitudes for the job.
With constant change being the only thing we can count on in the future, lifetime appointments need to become a thing of the past.
4. Not Making Use of Neighborhood Associations
The town has a valuable free information resource that continues to be ignored at substantial cost to the community. Productive neighborhood associations have been in place in many areas for decades. These associations have the most in-depth knowledge of area needs and issues and idiosyncrasies.
When work or changes are proposed for an area, it makes sense to pass those proposed changes by these organizations for comment and suggestions prior to proceeding.
A small example indicates the cost to the town of not doing so. Two years ago, residents in the Winfield Glen woke up to find double yellow lines painted on one street overnight. Anyone living in the area would have been able to inform the administration that the street in question was unusually narrow, with unfinished edges that make it treacherous.
Safety issues immediately arose and the town later discovered the road was too narrow to legally support division. Taxpayers had to pay for the town to grind off the yellow lines and re-tar over them to correct the situation at considerable cost, in addition to the cost and manpower to apply them in the first place.
We do not have the money or resources to be making these costly mistakes. Municipal procedure should include the constructive, cost-free community step of checking in with neighborhood associations before changes are made within any neighborhood.
5. We Need an All-Inclusive Map Showing Areas Unsuitable for Development
Our town includes areas of historical importance, wildlife and ecological importance, wetlands and flooding. Prior to any development being approved, it would make sense to develop a town map overlay for developers and planning and zoning boards, identifying the areas in which development would be unsuitable.
Instead of doing this, the town continues to allow outside developers to present proposals for these areas. It lands on the shoulders of often unequipped and unprepared, affected neighbors, to raise funding for lawyers, engineers and other experts to indicate the dangers in these proposals for land plots that should have been clearly marked unsuitable for development in the first place.
Many years ago, PEPA (Purchase Environmental Protection Agency) offered to pay for engineers and planners to draw up a draft map that would outline the areas of ecological, environmental or historical importance to the town so future development could be planned around them. It was offered at no cost to the town and with no obligation.
It's time to take them up on this offer.
6. Lack of Professional Management
If you had a company that cost $54.8 million a year to run that dealt with heavy union, legal, infrastructure and other high-profile issues, would you think it wise to pick five well-meaning, but often undertrained, people as its executive management team? Yet, that is exactly what we do every two years when we elect our town board.
There are now college degrees in public administration and professionals who have worked through each government department to gain the appropriate experience and expertise to manage efficiently. The time has come to establish a town manager position to take the helm of this critical $54.8 million community.
Are there more things that could be added to this list? Yes. Hopefully this initial six can be handled and we can move on to the next six and the next six after that.
Thankfully there remain far more wonderful things about this town than not. As long as there is continued vigilance and work to maintain that balance, it will continue to be "great to live in Harrison" for current residents and all future generations.