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Say You Want a Dissolution: Inside S Nyack’s Heated Battle Over Its Future

by Sasha Cohen

On Friday afternoon, former South Nyack Mayor Charlie Cross delivered a petition to Village Hall advocating for the dissolution of the Village of South Nyack. The petition was started by an ad-hoc group of South Nyack residents who came together earlier this summer to discuss their concerns regarding the future of the village and the board’s ability to adequately manage the controversial sale of Nyack College to a Ramapo-based yeshiva. 

The dissolution movement has been hotly debated in the Village of South Nyack Facebook group, with some insisting that the plan is politically and financially prudent and others arguing that these efforts are shortsighted, rooted in fear and frustration over the sale of the college. Many residents are afraid the village doesn’t have the budget or bandwidth to deal with the sale. Many also worry that the municipal government might soon be vulnerable to an electoral take-over by a new, Hassidic constituency—as has happened in several villages in the Town of Ramapo. 

But most advocates for dissolution insist that the approach is not merely emotional or fear-based; it’s pragmatic. Dissolving the village could result in reduced property taxes, and would leave planning and zoning issues to be handled by the Town of Orangetown. While the sale may have been the impetus for this movement, it did not create the village’s problems so much as it laid them bare, calling into question the viability of the Village of South Nyack—not just as a community, but as a business model.

Taxes, Taxes, Taxes

In 2018, Rockland County was ranked as having the second highest property taxes in the nation, just behind Westchester County. Yet the majority of these taxes pay for public schools and libraries, and not the village budget. With few commercial enterprises on the South Nyack tax rolls, the village budget relies almost entirely on residential property taxes. And so, with little economic growth and an extremely limited tax base, the village has been operating at a deficit for a long time, depleting its surplus and raising taxes by a whopping 17 percent this past year to cover services such as the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the South Nyack Police Department.

Administrating the sale and transformation of Nyack College will require significant resources. Signers of the petition asked: Would the village be able to manage a project of this scale? Would it be able to afford the hefty legal fees it might be facing?

“It makes you question whether this model is sustainable over the long run,” Cross explained. “We don’t have a downtown, we don’t have a commercial center, we’re just a mile square of houses. So there’s a really limited tax base.”

While village property taxes can be raised with the approval of its trustees, there’s a limit to how much the board is willing to ask its already highly taxed residents to pay. Bruce Forrest, a South Nyack resident who has served on several village boards over the past few decades, sees the stagnant tax base and escalating cost of services as the central problem facing the village. “I know everybody’s been focused on the bridge, and the shared use path, and now it’s the college,” Forrest said. “But there’s been this pervasive problem for a very long time. The village has been budgeting to lose money as long as it can get away with it.”

Forrest says this financial issue is inherent to the village business model: providing a high level of service to a small number of people. If South Nyack were to dissolve into a hamlet—an unincorporated community without a municipal government—the Town of Orangetown would assume responsibility for its DPW and law enforcement. Advocates argue that the Town of Orangetown would provide these services at a fraction the cost that villagers currently pay.

Many villagers, though, are reluctant to do away with their local police department and DPW. For example, the Department of Public Works has been operated by the same family—the Johnsons—for generations. Cross and Forrest both said that some employees of both the South Nyack Police Department and the DPW could be absorbed by Orangetown’s departments.

But some residents worry still that the loss of self-governance is not worth the potential tax benefits, and have expressed concern that Orangetown’s leadership, which is largely Republican, will not be a good match to serve the predominantly Democratic South Nyack community. 

In a recent op-ed, for instance, South Nyack resident and former Rockland County Legislator Nancy Low-Hogan argues that dissolution would  “subjugate our needs and priorities to that of the rest of the town.” Cliff Weathers, a South Nyack resident who voiced similar concerns on the village Facebook page, recently proposed that if the village dissolves, residents should push forward voting in Orangetown, similar to the ward voting system that was created in Clarkstown, to ensure South Nyack is given equitable treatment by the town government. This, he hopes, would address concerns about a political disconnect between South Nyack and its governing town. 

Low-Hogan argued that instead of becoming an unincorporated part of Orangetown, the Nyacks should merge together, consolidating their services and voter bases, and establishing, as Low-Hogan put it, a “River Villages Corridor.” Though the idea has gained some traction, residents from both villages have voiced concern that a merger would just cause Nyack to usurp—and not solve—the village’s problems.

“The merger with Nyack is an emotional thing rather than a hardcore look-at-the-numbers thing to figure out what’s the right thing for the village,” Forrest said. “So I’m an opponent to merging with Nyack only because it doesn’t change my tax burden. And if it doesn’t change mine I doubt it changes anybody else’s.”

Cross, too, ultimately feels confident that dissolution is a necessary step. 

“We’ve reached the point where maintaining this many different levels of government is too much of a tax burden,” Cross said. “I think in the long run it’s advantageous for taxpayers in the village.” 

What’s Next

After weeks of canvassing, the movement for dissolution managed to gather over 240 signatures. If at least 191 signatures are verified—10% of the village’s voter base—the board must host a referendum where residents will be offered the opportunity to discuss the possibility of dissolving the village, and vote to determine next steps.

Many believe that the future of the village lies in its dissolution. But even advocates admit that this is not a step they are taking with joy. In the Facebook post announcing the submission of the petition, T. Paul Bailey called it a “sad but necessary event.” 

Advocates and skeptics alike seem to have at least one shared goal. 

“We’re trying to preserve the character and the nature of the village—we’ll just have more manpower and resources to fight the zoning and building problems that may occur,” said dissolution advocate SK Bailey. “Nyack is always going to be Nyack. We’re always going to be right next door to the Village of Nyack, we’ll still be called South Nyack, our mailing address will still be Nyack, we’re still on the river. And right now, we need to do what’s best for the village.”

Sasha Cohen is a South Nyack resident and a recent Wesleyan College graduate.

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