Jen Laird White retires from public office this month after serving eight years on the Nyack Village Board. A lot has changed in her six years as mayor and two years as trustee. Over the next few days, we’ll recap some of the accomplishments during her time in office. When you see her around the village (and you will !) make sure to give her a smile and a thank you! — Mayor Don Hammond
Tough on Taxes, Two Times In A Row
According to her staff, former Nyack Mayor Jen White set the directive for developing a zero percent increase in spending in 2016. That’s a remarkable feat for any municipality, made even more impressive by a repeat performance in 2017.
“Much to my dismay, when Doug Foster and I became trustees in 2010 it became clear that the village was operating at a substantial deficit,” said former Nyack Mayor Jen Laird White. “In a village where $30,000 is roughly a one percent tax increase, there was $700,000 in unaccounted for funds.” The inner workings of Nyack Village Hall and the way the village was handling its finances soon proved to be Nyack’s most pressing issues.
A forensic accountant hired by the village reported that money didn’t go missing because of substantial theft but because of inadequate financial controls. The village was utilizing its staff as best as it could, but the people in place lacked experience working with municipal budgets. Meanwhile debt was accruing and money was disappearing.
“When Jen and I ran for trustee together eight years ago, Nyack was going down the drain fiscally,” said Foster. “We couldn’t pay our vendors.” Foster, who served as a village trustee from 2010-2017, said that Nyack was running out of money with six months to go in the budget year. “That first year we passed an 8.9 percent tax increase, which was fantasy, but we didn’t want to pass a 30 percent tax increase, which is what we really needed to do.”
In 2010, Nyack hired retired banker John Malesardi as village treasurer. “John was devoted to getting Nyack’s finances on the right track. He revolutionized and modernized the way our village looks at and deals with taxpayer money,” said Laird White. Village Adminstrator Jim Politi credits Nyack Malesardi with reducing Nyack’s debt service, which lowered costs, reduced tax increases and freed up dollars to take on capital projects. “Before 2010, Nyack did not have a bond rating. We would just go to the bank and just borrow money,” said Politi. “A bond rating is like a credit score for consumers. If you have a good bond rating, you get better rates,” he said.
Restructuring Nyack’s finances sparked a turnaround which had a ripple effect across village government. “Now we could start and complete capital projects,” said Politi. “Combined with some grant funding from the Nyack Park Conservancy, we were able to make a number of significant changes in Memorial Park, including relocating the baseball field and gazebo, building a new basketball court and completing a re-construction of the children’s playground.”
Less visible but just as important, the financial fixes freed up funds to repave village roads. Politi says that due to wear and tear and salt and ice, roads need to be repaved every ten years. But if there isn’t money in the budget, road maintenance can be put off. Despite the fact that Nyack has had low or no tax increases over the past four years, the village has been making progress keeping up with much needed road repairs.
While the village was undergoing management changes, the state was enacting policy changes. The 8.9 percent tax increase that the village levied in 2010-2011 wasn’t so extraordinary in late 20th/early 21st century New York. Property taxes in New York State grew at an average annual rate of 5.7 percent from 1980 to 2010. As a means of comparison, the average annual increase in the Consumer Price Index was 3.3 percent during that period. And the height of the increases occurred between 2000 and 2010, in the Mid-Hudson Valley, where property taxes grew at an average annual rate of 6.2 percent, more than double the rate of inflation. For 30 years, New York was rapidly becoming a prohibitively expensive place to live.
The village subsequently tightened its staff, eliminated public works overtime – a big expense for municipalities – and took on a conservative approach to spending. “What we’ve done is manage to streamline the expenses to a degree where we don’t need to raise taxes to cover them,” she said. “We’re living within our means. That said, if there’s some big infrastructure project that needs to happen, that might mean that taxes need to get raised that year. The fact that we have a lot of residents moving here and that our stores and businesses are doing well just says that our taxes [in the] long term will improve.”
Politi agreed. “I don’t know how long you could go with zero [percent tax increase]. But every once in awhile, you should be able to do that, and give taxpayers a break.”