By Michael Lebron
This week’s Newburgh’s City Council meeting was greeted with a show of force by its police officers, firemen, emergency service providers and its tax-paying home and property owners, who filled up just about every square inch of space at City Hall.
This was the second time in a row that these stakeholders showed up in such numbers, concerned about the City Manager’s annual budget proposals that included either steep tax increases on a community already reeling from the highest tax rates in the region, or steep cuts to the city’s fire, police and EMS people.
Some of the people who got up to speak asked the city to try to think a little more out of the box. As an example: why not tax buildings based on their use instead of their market value in order to address the injustice that many homesteaders feel when they do the right thing and fix up Newburgh’s many historic homes, only to be punished by seeing their taxes shoot sky high while slumlords reap income from their buildings but leave problems like leaky roofs, faulty plumbing and heating, and pest infestation unaddressed. Another idea was to have city fire, police and EMS people paid through fees instead of taxes, as a way to get non-profits – who benefit from these services – to help relieve the burden.
Others wanted to know why the city does not do more to market itself and attract more investment. To this point, the mayor said that Ali Church, head of the City’s Planning Department, was working closely with the Economic Development Advisory Committee and had received excellent responses to RFP’s put out for “the first two of what we call the easiest of the hillside parcels… at 15 South Colden and two or three contiguous parcels at 3 Montgomery Street…a lot of your passion was echoed in the responses we got from developers”.
Towards the end of public comment, Dan Gilbert, who has lived on Liberty Street for 5 years, thanked the city employees for doing the best job they can with the limited resources that they have. As a small business owner with an office on Broadway, he spoke on behalf of his employees who he said would suffer if taxes were raised. He said rents would go up, all the new people who are coming in to fix things up will stop coming, and long-term residents may find themselves no longer able to live in the city.
Council members defended themselves by saying that they did not like the options that they were presented with either and reminded everyone that they live in the city themselves. They asked for patience from the community in order to fix problems that were the result of decades of mismanagement. The mayor announced that in a council work session, the tax increase for homesteaders was driven down to 3.1%. This did little to placate some, who argued for “Zero Tolerance” for any increases at all.
The comment period closed out on a note of hope, when Dawn Liberi, a resident at The Foundry, spoke about her professional experiences working in developing countries, where she has seen transformative progress. She said that some of the prerequisites for economic transformation that she has seen around the world are in Newburgh, such as economic and social diversity. She said that the “natural resources up and down the Hudson Valley belong to everyone in Newburgh. With one of the largest historic districts in NY State, the potential for development is huge. And what is the biggest cause of economic transformation around the world? Domestic revenue generation. How do you do that? You invite people in to develop businesses and jobs; to be part of the transformation. In countries where people lived on a dollar a day, when they went through an economic transformation, what happened? They went from 0% growth to 3, 4%. What does that mean? People’s incomes doubled. And they started paying more taxes. When you have this process, it does work. Newburgh can transform, and that’s why I’m here”.
After the meeting, some said that it seems that the Newburgh community has been through so much that it suffers from a form of PTSD. Ritchie Fracasse replied that the city has been through this pain many times before. But this time it feels different, and that “it’s people like Dan and Dawn and others who show up at these meetings and make themselves heard who are making it different.”
Dawn Liberi Dan Gilbert