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Interview with DEP Commissioner Christopher
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At the same time, in an apparent bow to pressure from the Coalition
of Watershed Towns and other municipalities in the Catskills, the DEP
has withdrawn its plan to spend $600,000 to hire consultants to review
project impacts which were to have included secondary growth and community
character. Instead, the agency will proceed with a smaller consulting
contract focusing primarily on its principal concerns with water quality.
In a statement issued June 24, DEP announced it will be providing up
to $100,000 for local review of the Belleayre Resort project, with funds
to be shared by Shandaken and Middletown. A memorandum of agreement
between the towns and the City specifying the share each will receive
and specific terms is currently under discussion, with the town's supervisors
in apparent accord to share information.
"I've been working on this since early April, when I first contacted
DEP to ask whetherthey'd consider making some money available in light
of the developer's refusal to provide it" said Supervisor Pete
Di Modica." After many discussions I met with the Commissioner
in May and talked about our funding problem, which I followed with a
letter requesting their assistance. I just didn't think it was fair
for Shandaken's taxpayers to have to pay for the review of a project
to benefit the developer's investors"
Di Modica's lobbying seems to have dovetailed with Senator Bonicic's
effort to limit the scope of DEP's review of the project, reflecting
concerns of the Coalition of Watershed Towns, the developer, and Shandaken's
Town Board with the City's involvement in non-water quality issues.
"I felt the City could be a good neighbor by doing this,"
Bonacic said this week. "It's important that these two municipalities
have the funds to meet their responsibility to properly review this
Following the City's announcement, Crossroad's Dean Gitter said in the
Daily Freeman that any use of DEP funds must be determined by Shandaken's
As for how much the city will now spend on its review, Catskill Center
director Tom Alworth said as far as he knew, they were going to spend
up to $500,000.
Bonacic added that it was his understanding that DEP would keep its
review in-house, not utilizing "outside contractors beholden to
upholding a preconcieved view."
"I'm pleased that we'll be able to provide money to the Planning
Board" said Di Modica. "Under SEQRA they'll need to look at
planning issues which are broader than site plan review. We don't know
how much they'll need yet, or even how much is available. But it is
not in the jurisdiction of the Planning Board to review fiscal impacts,
the impacts on Shandaken's taxpayers. That's the Town Board's responsibility,
and we intend to hire the best people we can find to help us understand
"The simple fact", says Di Modica, "is the developer
doesn't want its host town to review the project at all. The fact that
he now wants to tell Shandaken how to look out for its taxpayers and
figure out if the town can afford his project, that's par for the course
an alternative tax apportionment program that's totally voluntary,"
said Joe Hesch, spokesperson for the state Office of Real Property Services,
which oversees the tax code. He noted that the suggested change was
first brought to his department six years ago by members of the state
Asasociation of Towns, as well as the legislative committee of the state
The new tax code provision, Section 1316 of the state's Real Property
Tax Law, allows school districts, and county governments, to adopt annual
resolutions "no later than 10 days prior to the last day to levy
taxes" that would allow a district to then eliminate disparities
among all properties if, and only if, the large property in question
1) constitutes five percent or more of the total assessed value of a
city or town; 2) the full value of the property is at least five million
dollars, and 3) the percentage of difference between the State equalization
rate and the local apportionment equalization rate for that property
is at least five percent.
The tax code replaces the traditional apportionment method for school
districts (RPTL 1314) only if approved by the taxing entity. And according
to Hesch, the current tax code changes effects only 28 school districts
throughout the state, the only other Ulster County communities in question
being Warwarsing, with the Rondout reservoir and state prison, and Shawungunk,
with its state prison.
According to Chuck Snyder, business manager for the Onteora School District,
the last day he can levy taxes is August 31, meaning any passage of
the current tax code provision would have to occur before August 21,
at the latest. The school board's next meeting is set for July 14. With
no communication from the state Office of Real Property Services to
the school district prior to a May 5 memo, and no communication of the
issue to board members yet, Snyder said the matter had not been put
on the agenda for that date, as far as he knew.
"We don't even have our final assessments or equalization rates
for the coming year yet," he said this week. "I don't think
any of us knew this was coming. At the moment, we're all trying to figure
out what it all means."
That, Snyder said, included claims by Olive town supervisor Berndt Leifeld
that any attempt by the school district to implement such a new apportionment,
no matter how fair to the rest of the district, would force him to start
looking at a municipal revaluation of assessments, which Olive has not
undertaken in the last twenty-six years he's been involved in town government.
"The city's assessment level has been at about $100 million for
the last 15 years," Leifeld said on Tuesday. "We've been fighting
for a $300 million assessment. Now, say we get our 100 percent new assessments,
where will that leave the school district? They could stand to lose
a million, one and a half million in state aid if they push this. It's
up to the school board"
Leifeld, who said he was going to a special Catskills Watershed Corporation
meeting to discuss the new law's implications with Albany attorneys
on Thursday, noted that although he understood the ideal of equalizing
tax amounts between townships behind the legislation, he felt compelled
to protect his local constituents.
"I'm going to have to rant and rave about this. That's my job,"
he said. "I just wish I'd known more about it earlier."
Discussing the law's potential effect on Olive taxpayers, Leifeld said,
"Here's the problem... When the City came in here and took away
thousands of acres of our town's best land, including its villages,
to build the reservoir, they effectively gave us no way of ever getting
a commercial tax base here. That effected our people then, it effects
our people now. So where the hell do they come in with this talk about
fluctuation of law and tax rates when the biggest fluctuations are going
to effect the people right here."
Leifeld was referring to the central problem that the new tax code provision
was designed to address. For years now, Olive has had a lower tax rate
than its surrounding towns, largely because of the reservoir. There
have been complaints about how little the City pays, and back-and-forth
lawsuits over the matter, but no one's really pushed the situation because,
as the town supervisor says, "We could win the battles, but we'd
lose the war," triggering losses in school aid and other benefits.
According to state records, Olive has a equalized value of $62,684,000,
of which $1,801,914 goes to OCS from 3,079 properties. The lion's share
is from the city. In comparison, Woodstock has an equalization value
of $59,514,000, paying $3,129,617 to OCS from 4,769 properties; Shandaken
has a $21,358,000 equalization value, paying in $1,883,921 on 3,054
properties; and Hurley has an equalization value of $35,964,00, paying
in $540,600 to OCS from a total of 3,435 properties in town, many of
those in other school districts.
"In my view, this is a larger issue than just Olive and Onteora,"
said Leifeld. He added that Alan Rosa, executive director of the CWC,
which oversees all watershed matters between New York City and the West-of-Hudson
Upstate region in which a majority of its reservoirs lie, had pledged
to help all he could, even though many of the school districts in rural
Greene, Sullivan, Schoharie and Delaware counties are still single-municipality
districts with schools that run from k-12 in one building.
"I heard about it all from one of my residents, who heard about
it from Bob Cross, who's talking about running against Pete DiModica
over in Shandaken. Cross heard it from (Woodstock Supervisor) Jeremy
Wilbur, who gave him some papers that came into his office from somewhere,"
Leifeld said of the roundabout fashion in which he found out about the
possibly huge tax hikes to his town. "Now that I look back on it
over the last eight years, I remember my assessor saying something about
some bill up in Albany maybe effecting the reservoir. That must have
been a year ago. I just wish there'd been more communications."
Wilbur said Cross "just happened to be in my office" when
a fax about the new tax code came into his office. And he added that,
"The assessors, they were aware that this thing was under consideration
for quite some time."
So how did he feel about it, or Leifeld's problems with how it could
"I'll tell you where I stand," Wilbur said. "First of
all, I think it is disgraceful that New York State has to fund our children's
education with so much of an emphasis on property taxes. But we're stuck
with that for now... even though I think the time will come where the
state comes up with a better way. Being things as they are, the burden
of taxation for our education must be spread out as fairly as possible.
I believe this is a step in the rigtht direction."
"Oh, I had a very brief conversation with him last week,"
Wilbur said on Wednesday. "I may actually be seeing him at the
Ulster County Supervisor's Association meeting tonight."
According to Leifeld, changes to Olive tax payers could be as much as
$143 per $1000 of assessed value, were the new tax code provision okayed.
According to Wilbur and Shandaken town supervisor Pete DiModica, their
residents' property taxes could go down between $2 and $4 per $1000,
representing savings of an average few hundred dollars per property.
"It's a question of weighing advantages," said State Assemblyman
Kevin Cahill of the new code. "The key to it all is avoiding parochial
battles between municipalities. I understand the argument from Olive's
point of view, but there's also the question of equalizing matters for
the entire school district."
Noting that he wished he had been more aware, earlier, of the possible
effects the new legislation would have had on Olive and other towns
in his district, Cahill said the trick, now, was to ensure that everyone
came together to sit down and discuss the effects new apportionment
would have across the board.
"It comes down to questions about real benefits to a community.
Is a matter of a few dollars savings to one town worth such trouble
to another," he said. "The big problem is that the amounts
are so large because we've put the burden of education on our property
owners in the first place. I just hope this produces more discussion
of that state of affairs."
Speaking on behalf of the Ulster County Real Property Service, Assistant
Director Sue Tillson said her agency's director, Dorothy Martin, was
set to address a special meeting of the legislature in July. She added
that any action on the county's part, which would have a much quieter
effect than any changes in school district tax levies, would have to
occur before November 1.
"We're looking into it here," she said, noting that tax assessments
at large corporations like the Hudson Valley Mall, owned by the Pyramid
Corp., would not be effected because there was currently no discrepancies
between State and local assessment figures. "The underlying problem
here may have something to do with tax assessment revals, which Olive,
Warwarsing and Shandaken haven't done in years."
"I'm politically savvy enough to not even go there," said
DiModica, who's preparing to face serious opposition this fall after
one term in office.
"You start with that shit, it won't stop," said Leifeld. "You'll
be seeing a feeding frenzy, then. I'm my board members, asking if they
want to go down this slope."
Noted OCS Board Member Meg Carey, an Olive resident, in conclusion:
"None of this has been discussed by the board yet. We haven't even
heard from the school attorney on this. We still don't have any of the
right information to even start considering making a decision."
After a pause, Carey added: "August is the deadline? That would
be amazing for us to move that quickly."
This meal is quite different from one I'd get downstairs in the restaurant
that Khan runs with her husband, Belayet. This meal has no rich sauce
on it, and is spicier than what I would eat at their Pine Hill Indian
Restaurant, which the couple has owned since 1995. Many of us know
it because of its scrumptious and inexpensive weekend buffet, which
draws fans from miles around.
"In our culture, in our country, we always offer food,"
explains Khan. "Whenever anybody comes, we offer them a seat,
and a plate of food." Khan tells me how some of the friends she's
made since she's been here have even taken up the tradition themselves.
"Now when Florence Hamlin, my landlady calls me, she has already
cooked up an entire meal!" explains Khan, with a smile that lights
up her entire face.
Khan and her husband are from Bangladesh, she was born in Dhaka, a
city not unlike New York. "I was a city girl, now I'm country.
But he's a country boy. He loves this place." He was the first
chef at the Mountain Gate where he received 4-star ratings from the
Daily Freeman and the Catskill Mountain News.
Belayet has been here since 1985. "His people are working on
cruise ships," explains Khan, "traveling all over the world
cooking." The two married in 1989, in an arranged marriage. Her
family invited his over for food, and about 30 relatives on both sides
witnessed the initial meeting between them. "He liked me. At
first I said no," she says with a laugh. "The second time,
he was so nice to me. He told me he'd bring me to America. I said,
'Okay, I'll go.'"
Khan says that many want to come here to live a more comfortable life,
to leave behind highly-populated, poor and flood-prone Bangladesh.
Two of her siblings are still there, and two have also come here.
In fact, one brother was nearly forced to leave the country recently.
"The INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] took away his
visa and passport," she says. Khan believes it was because he,
like 80 percent of all Bangladeshis, is Muslim. (The nearest mosque
is in Kingston, so the Khans worship at home, praying in the direction
of Mecca six times a day.) It was a difficult time for the entire
family. And just when his papers were returned to him at the beginning
of June, their mother died unexpectedly. Khan is still deeply mourning
her mother, and tears well up several times today as she remembers
her. "My mom came and took care of my two kids while I had my
third child. She was so happy my brother got his passport and visa
back. I love her so much," she says, the pain starting to contract
her features. Just then a neighbor knocks on the door and enters.
It is Elizabeth who has converted to Islam. She has brought three
sesame treats for the children. She hugs Khan before leaving.
"Here everyone loves me. Like Florence-she's so nice. I've been
having trouble sleeping, so I take Tylenol P.M. and read the Koran
and I feel better."
Their three sons have come in during the interview and watch cartoons
on TV in a large family room. Khan is very proud that Fayim, their
10-year-old is getting A's and A+'s in school. Sammy, the 5-year-old,
jumps up and down on the bed and Asief, the 7-year-old, sits on a
coffee table scoping out the scene. Fayim proudly holds up the latest
Harry Potter book for the photo. School books are scattered across
the tables and huge photos of all the children adorn practically every
available shelf. Fayim wants to be a computer engineer, not a doctor,
because he's afraid of blood, says Khan. "He's so kind."
"We want a nice life for them," says Khan, and asked whether
their marriages will be arranged, she shrugs. "Everything changes.
I don't know. It's okay either way. But just one, no girlfriends,
just husband and wife."
And reflecting on the turmoil in the world, she says, "We need
peace, nice life, no fighting."
"I grew up in a Rotary family," says Gene Gormley, who's
been a member for 39 years. "I always understood that it was
the service organization in the community. My father was a charter
member." The Rotary's main focus, says Gormley, is education.
"We're one of the largest contributors to the Onteora scholarship
program." The Rotary gives $1,400 a year for 4 years of college
to those awarded scholarships. The organization also sponsors exchange
students, under the leadership of Glenn Miller, who, after Gormley
is the longest standing member, tallying up 38 years of service. (At
its largest, the Rotary boasted about 60 members, today that has dwindled
to 15.) "We're hosting an exchange student from the Czech Republic
now," says Gormley. "We've sent out about 16 students-to
Sweden, France, and Germany, among other countries." The group
also offers an interest-free revolving loan fund to help students
in their last two years of college.
The Rotary was also the lead organization in bringing the eagle to
Phoenicia in 1986, inaugurating Shandaken Eagle Day, which occurs
every 10 years. Beneath the eagle is a time capsule, which will be
opened in the year 2086.
And of course, the Rotary runs the Quacker Races each Columbus Day
weekend, in which rubber ducks are dropped from the Woodland Valley
Bridge and pull in at the finishing line at Bridge Street, funding
Until the 1980s, the Rotary was closed to women. "Rotary was
not a word in my dictionary," says Janice Rubin, the first woman
president. Rubin's ex-husband, Martin, was a member a charter member,
and Rubin joined in 1988. "The first woman member was Noreen
Carroll, the principal of the Hurley School."
And the Rotary knows how to throw a great party, says Rubin. Its Jail
& Bail fundraiser put on in 1988 was a most memorable event. It
was part of the worldwide Rotary Club's effort to wipe out polio.
"We built a jail in Al's Restaurant, and everyone knew they were
going to get arrested before hand." Some of the convicts-Marty
Millman, Al Higley, Al Spada and Jim McGrath actually broke into the
wine cellar during their incarceration and netted a bottle of Dom
Perignon. "The goal was to raise $3,500 through bail money,"
says Rubin. "In 6 hours, we raised $8,924."
To join the celebration, show up at Al's at this Sunday at 2p.m. Tickets