Political leaders discuss consolidation, taxes at young professionals forum

PLATTSBURGH Local elected leaders have spoken and young people in the greater Plattsburgh area have listened. Adirondack Young Professionals, a group which seeks to create networking opportunities for young professionals in the North Country, hosted an economic development and talent retention forum at Olive Ridleys Jan. 16. Clinton County District Four Legislator Sara E. Rowden, Plattsburgh City Mayor Donald M. Kasprzak and Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Bernard C. Bassett each lent their knowledge of the inner workings of local government to the forum. The panel was asked an array of questions from the events moderator, WPTZ Newschannel 5 president and general manager Paul A. Sands, including those submitted by the audience. The first topic debated was the a merger of the town of Plattsburgh and city of Plattsburgh governments. Supervisor Bassett and Mayor Kasprzak each gave their respective viewpoints, with the supervisor stating there would be much to consider before such an option could be decided. Finances and resources of both municipalities would need to be examined, he said, though he ultimately believes overall consolidation of the two governments is not the answer. Improving communication and the sharing of services, such as the mayor and supervisor have done over the past few years, he said, is more beneficial. Neither of us are hanging around looking for things to do, said Supervisor Bassett. Therefore, to eliminate one of us would be totally unproductive. Our departments are working full-time. We dont need any fewer snowplow drivers or managers. The thing we really need to do, is again, communicate and collaborate ... I dont know that a formal fiscal merger truly has any advantages to us at this time and point. Mayor Kasprzak, who first casually mentioned the idea of a city-town merger at a Rotary meeting last June, agreed communication and collaboration are essential but contested consolidation is worth examining. We have problems in the city. Our tax rates unbelievably high. Our utilities are skyrocketing. One of the ways we could probably alleviate that is to merge with the town, said Mayor Kasprzak. But, it has to work out financially for everybody, the mayor admitted. It just cant bail the city of Plattsburgh out. Do I believe in my heart that down the road somewhere the two should merge? I do, he added. When it will be, I cant tell you that. I dont think its going to be next year. It may not be 10 years, it may be 20 years. Legislator Rowden, who moved to the area more than 30 years ago when her husband was stationed at the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base, said she is in favor of city-town consolidation. Hailing from Illinois, the amount of overlapping government in New York State is something that was initially unfamiliar to her. When I first moved up here, I lived in Morrisonville, I was in the town of Plattsburgh, I picked up my mail in the town Schuyler Falls and my kids went to the Saranac school district. I was so confused, said Legislator Rowden. In the Midwest we have counties, and within counties there are towns and cities, but everything in between was county. The legislator added she understood the idea was to maintain local control when cities, town, villages and counties were first established in New York and other states like it. However, the idea of local has come to cover a much larger region, she said, and examining consolidation could be worthwhile. I agree with the mayor. I think [consolidation] is something that needs to happen, but it would have to be planned, said Legislator Rowden. One of several other issues brought to the table was that of taxes. Legislator Rowden explained, from the county perspective, the legislature has two ways of generating revenue property taxes and sales tax. Fifty-eight percent of the money raised by the county must go toward state-mandated Medicaid expenses. The county has no input regarding that figure, she added. Property taxes, she Legislator Rowden, are a regressive form of taxation. Historically, people who owned property were wealthy and were the ones the government aimed to tax most. Today, many people own property when they reach a certain age. High property taxes now tend to hurt young people starting out and the elderly who have lived in their homes for decades, she said. In order to help prevent that, Legislator Rowden said she has submitted her name to serve on a bi-partisan commission to be created by Governor Eliot L. Spitzer. The governor announced his plan during his State of the Upstate address to establish the commission, which would examine causes of high property taxes. Within a municipality such as the city, said Mayor Kasprzak, the only way to reduce taxes for the people is to control spending and on what taxpayers dollars are spent. Everybody talks about going out and getting jobs and revenue-generating ideas and I sit there all day long thinking, like smart people in office do, about how to do that. The bottom line is you cannot overspend. You cant spend what you dont have, said the mayor. I agree with Don, said Supervisor Bassett. You have to control spending. You have to wisely decide how to spend the revenue you have, whatever that is. But, you can only control and cut to a certain limit. That isnt going to solve all your needs. Having a strong focus on attracting economic growth and development also helps municipalities, the supervisor said. Working collaboratively with other levels of local government to achieve lower water and wastewater treatment to entice such development is a way to initiate lowering the tax burden among people within a municipality, he said. Mayor Kasprzak said while the city may not have as many opportunities for development within its boundaries as the town, supporting growth in the town ultimately helps the city and county as well with the amount of sales tax generated by additional businesses. I was impressed by the honesty of the panelists, said Michael S. Cashman, chairman of the Adirondack Young Professionals board of directors. If anything, a forum such as this encourages a dialogue. It allows for members of our community to put names and faces together, whether thats to approach each other at the store or sitting at a table discussing the needs of a community. Its about bringing people together. It went really, really well, said board of directors member and event organizer Keri Mack. This kind of forum creates a social exchange for young professionals and gives us a voice. It shows were interested in whats happening in our community. Mr. Cashman and Ms. Mack each remarked discussion has already begun regarding hosting similar forums featuring guest panelists in the future. The next event to be sponsored by the Adirondack Young Professionals will be a mixer at the Southgate bar, 5131 U.S. Ave., Thursday, Feb. 7. The mixer will be held from 5-7 p.m., and will benefit local STOP Domestic Violence shelters. Attendees are asked to bring donations for those in need which include items such as prepaid phone cards and gasoline cards, pillows and plastic pillow protectors, crib and twin bed sheets, dish soap, laundry soap and toiletries. Monetary donations will also be accepted.

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