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The Sky Isn't Falling in Scarsdale: Rhetoric and Reality

chickenlittleThis is the opinion of site founder Joanne Wallenstein: For years, Robert Berg, candidate for Mayor of Scarsdale has been warning that the sky will fall over Scarsdale. Just this week, at the Candidate's Forum of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, he called the Village "a disaster" that could go into a "death spiral" if spending was not contained. He said the condition of Scarsdale's 79 miles of roads was "atrocious" and called for them all to be replaced. At the same time he raised fears that rising taxes would chase empty nesters out of town, causing more families with young children to move in and strain the resources of the school system.

Why did this all sound so familiar?

I looked back at earlier reports and found this letter that Bob wrote to Scarsdale10583 when he crusaded to organize the first NO vote on a Scarsdale School budget in 43 years in 2013. Again he appealed to older residents saying, "Stop the spending madness and stop it NOW! .... Empty nesters, in particular, should ask themselves: How long will I be able to afford to stay in my home in Scarsdale where I have lived for 20, 30, 40 years or more if my property taxes keep soaring? Unless we are fortunate enough to be multi-millionaires, sadly, for most of us, we will come to the only rational economic decision – we'll have to move away because of the excessive property tax burden, which is predominantly driven by the school budget. Forcing our empty nesters to leave town because of uncontrolled school spending is wrong on so many levels and is destructive to the very fabric of the community and to the many community organizations that depend heavily on the extraordinary time and talents provided by empty nesters. Scarsdale is not just a way station for people to leave after they have had their children educated in our schools – an education which empty nesters subsidize by more than half. Empty nesters – this is your community – you need to come out and vote "NO" and protect your financial ability to remain here."

Berg was successful in defeating the budget, and as a consequence, pressuring Scarsdale School Superintendent Michael McGill to retire a year earlier than planned.

Following the 2016 revaluation, Berg was equally as pessimistic. In the September 23, 2016 issue of the Scarsdale Inquirer, he said, "The system is not working. It's a disaster here."

And on Scarsdale10583 he repeatedly called the Ryan a "train wreck waiting to happen." He continued, "The Ryan reval mess is just not "unanticipated consequences of well-intentioned actions." These consequences were forewarned by me and others. We are not Chicken Little, and yes, the sky did fall."

So is Scarsdale a disaster?

That issue was debated at the candidate's forum on Tuesday night March 7 when several sitting Village Trustees presented facts to demonstrate that the Village is by all measures fiscally sound and well managed.

Trustee Matt Callaghan said that Moody's has given the Village of Scarsdale a AAA bond rating citing healthy reserves, low debt and a wealthy tax base. Trustee Carl Finger told the group that Con Edison would now pay to repair all roads that they tear up repairing or replacing equipment and that an audit of Optimum's contract with the Village yielded an additional $100,000 in revenue.

At Village Hall, Mayor Jon Mark disputed the claim that all of the roads need to be replaced, saying, "Note also that most of our roads are not in horrible condition. Sweeping statements that imply all 79 miles of Village roads are presently in need of re-paving tend to overstate the problem."

The most recent demographers reports of the population of the Scarsdale schools show no evidence that an exodus of empty nesters had caused the school population to exceed school capacity. In fact, for the past ten years enrollment has been relatively flat and is projected to remain at current levels for the foreseeable future.

Has the 2016 revaluation caused a train wreck? An analysis of home sales in 2016 shows that Ryan's assessments for the 2016 tax roll are equally if not closer to market value than the assessment roll from 2015.

Recent tax increases do not appear to be climbing to unsustainable levels. The latest projections from both the school and the village are quite reasonable. According to Village Manager Steve Pappalardo, Village taxes which represent about 18% of your local tax bill, are projected to go up or 2.19% or about $223 per year for a home valued at $1.5mm. The school administration is estimating a 1.4% budget-to-budget increase for the 2017-18 school year, even in the midst of a substantial capital improvement project.

Is the sky falling as Berg warns?

By all measures, the answer is no.

In fact, the only crisis that I see in town is the one caused by the use of exaggeration and hyperbole by Berg's new party to unseat the candidates chosen by the Citizens' Nominating Committee. If the Voters' Choice Party succeeds, I fear that Scarsdale will become as polarized as the rest of the country and nasty partisan politics will prevail here as they do elsewhere. Investigations, FOIL requests, attacks on volunteers and village managers and lawsuits will discourage good people from serving on Village boards and working in Village Hall.

The real risk is that we will lose our tradition of building consensus through careful consideration of the facts and civil discussion ... and that might be the disaster for all who value our unique form of governance and the special place we live.

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