What a year it’s been! It’s hard to believe that almost one short year ago, the Village of Watkins Glen Board of Trustees welcomed Kevin Smith and Scott Gibson as its newest members and Mark Swinnerton as the new Village Mayor. Coupled with the past experience of Wayne Weber, and our recently appointed member, Paul Clifford, it was clear from the start that the Village was embarking in a new direction. With a campaign platform for change, members of the board promised to improve its role in municipal government from several perspectives.
• Conduct business in an open and transparent manner;
• Reunite the local government with its community by encouraging open participation and involvement, holding true to the belief that “it’s your government”;
• Review the overall budget process, making cuts where necessary to ensure that taxes are kept at a minimum;
• Plan for our future with long-term goals;
• Make the tough choices on changing policy, programming, and operations to benefit the entire community;
• Improve partnerships with our municipal neighbors, businesses, and organizations.
With a fiscal crisis faced by all municipalities and dwindling State and Federal support, our first task was to take a long and hard look at how the Village has been spending your money. To make matters more difficult, on January 1, 2012, the State limited the annual growth of property taxes levied by local governments to just 2 percent, which is equivalent to about $25,000 of the Village budget. While this looks good on paper, the fact of the matter is that the cap does very little for costly unfunded mandates or expenses beyond the Village’s control including the likes of health care costs, insurance rates, fuel surcharges, or equipment and materials which must be considered above all else. As you can see, that $25,000 is easily expended even before we make any modifications in how the Village operates.
By reviewing each department budget starting from scratch, the Village was able to maintain its costs without increasing your taxes. We were able to overcome $85,000 in State mandated increases in health care and retirement and the saying “can we accomplish more with less” became our motto. We are proud to say that each department head made the sacrifices that were necessary. This effort was not without its casualties and we continue to this day to seek ways to fund past staples of the community like the Summer Recreation Program by looking for support from other municipalities or through grants. In the long run, we applaud our staff for the tough choices that had to be made and ask that you do the same the next time you see them.
The core of what makes a community great is the level of service that it provides. We love our small town feel, appreciate what it has to offer, and yet depend on economic boosts and partnerships from our retailers and tourism to support it all. We have worked very hard at partnering with the Schuyler County Partnership for Economic Development (SCOPED), the Chamber of Commerce, the County and surrounding towns and villages on how to maintain the optimum level of services possible. With constant improvement in mind, we strive to continue to make Watkins Glen a better place with the following achievements:
• We partially funded two separate studies with SCOPED to improve the northern and eastern gateways into our community. The plan would be to develop a more welcoming approach from Route 14 heading into the Village by improving signage, traffic calming, tourism services, additional waterfront development, and parking. From Route 79 heading onto 4th street, the study would focus on improvements for ecotourism. Our marshes are a literal gem that many surrounding communities envy and we’ll be looking at the possibility of creating facilities to better explore them. Tank Beach, areas of Clute Park, and the marshland itself would be considered for boardwalks, kayak launches, fishing areas, bird watching platforms, and information and welcome-area kiosks.
• We have embarked on a sewer rate study partnership with the Town of Reading. The plan will evaluate present operational and capital needs for the Town of Reading, the Town of Dix, and the Village of Watkins Glen as well as long-term plans to cover costly and inevitable expenses like sewer replacements, equipment rehabilitation, and plant maintenance.
• We have partnered with the Town of Hector, the County, the Town of Reading, and the State of New York on a potential grant for the purchase of an emergency services fire “rescue boat” that will help protect our community, private property, commercial watercraft enterprises, and our tourists with a sorely needed service. The Fire Company continues to fund-raise so that costs can be kept to a minimum on behalf of the Village.
• We have embarked on a consolidation study for our Police Department to possibly combine our forces with that of the Schuyler County Sheriff’s Department. The results of this evaluation would determine whether the move would a) prevent loss of services, and b) determine what kind of cost savings it would mean to the taxpayer.
• We are working with the New York State Power Authority on participating in a “green” initiative by buying into a subsidized program that will allow us to qualify for grants at a substantially reduced rate for Electric Department equipment purchases such as vehicles, lighting, materials, infrastructure upgrades, etc.
• We are working with fiber optic cable providers to install an optical “backbone” through our community. This would initially benefit businesses and we are hoping that it would lead to residential areas over time.
• We repurchased the Raw Water Intake Building on Magee-Salt Point Road. Faced with an exorbitant expense of taxpayers’ dollars, the Village was required to embark on a $1.2 million dollar construction project for a new water intake pumping station to replace the one that was sold within the Village Electric Plant back in 2008. The intake draws water from the lake and pumps it up to our filter plant off of Route 409 and is a vital component of our water supply. For various reasons, the new station was never constructed and the owner of the property threatened legal action to evict the Village from the property. After much negotiating and mounting legal expenses, the Village repurchased the property for $825,000. This represented a savings to the community of almost $500,000, including estimated future legal fees. We are at this moment partnering with a private developer who intends to buy back the property from us at fair market value and cohabitate the building with our existing pump station to convert it into high-end apartments. The transaction will provide an additional cost savings to the community overall.
• We are working closely with staff and are helping to implement their great ideas to help the municipality run more efficiently. They are the experts in what they do and they have great vision for our Village. Recent examples include the development of an event planning and approval process to ensure that each department is satisfied with how an event functions within the Village.
Improvements to the Public Process
The Village of Watkins Glen is your community and it is imperative that you be a full participant in the governmental process. How we spend your tax dollars and revenue is as important as how you manage your own funds at home. As such, we have made the following changes to help improve the way business is conducted:
• We encourage public participation! Come to our board meetings and be part of the discussion. If you have a question, ask it. If you have a comment, say it. You are part of the process.
• We have improved the detail and turnaround of our meeting minutes. Whether it’s a current board member, a future one, staff, or a member of the public that simply wants to know what’s going on, you will find our minutes published on our website in a timely manner with better detail of our discussions and decisions.
• We now televise our meetings to our community! Local channel 5 now airs each board meeting during the week following the meeting.
• Improvements to short-term and long-range goals. We now have an annual workshop which the public is encouraged to participate in. Come and assist staff, local officials, and businesses by joining in the discussion to help direct our community’s future.
• We are available. Your e-mails and phone calls are responded to in a timely manner. No ifs, ands or buts. Your concerns are important to us and we will do what we can to constantly improve how we operate.
• We have improved communication. You may or may not disagree with our decisions, but you know why we made them. We are plain and straight talking and we do not hide behind political rhetoric.
Improvements to the Community
• You will begin to see improvements to Lafayette Park. As part of the remaining funds to the Catharine Valley Trail grant that was supported by the past administration, the entrance at the corner of Decatur and 4th Street will see granite paver stones and improved landscaping. The stones will be made for sale to the community for monogramming or family name personalization to help raise funds for a period style clock that SCOPED is working on to help grace the entrance.
• The Village will continue to systematically replace curbing and conduct street improvements as funds become available.
• Village water supply tanks will need to be repainted and rehabilitated soon. We will continue to build on capital funds over the next year or two to fulfill this requirement.
• We will be working on long-range plans to begin a replacement program for our water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure, some of which have been in use for 100 years. A capital improvement system for the highest priority cases will need to be developed to cover costs that can easily exceed our water and sewer budgets alone for one project covering just a few Village blocks.
• We are improving old policies and procedures to make our community better. An updated traffic law that has been under review for several years will make changes including the reduction of the Village speed limit in our residential areas to 20 mph. We will also be extending the range of mandatory 15 mph school zones to help protect our children.
• Our Parks Department will soon be implementing a new on-line reservation system for our Village Campground. This will save staff time and resources to help reduce costs.
• Business District: We are constantly striving to come up with new ways to keep our businesses and lure in new ones. We have a proactive relationship with the Chamber of Commerce and we will continue to look at ways to improve. We are working with the Chamber to develop and reformat the BID (Business Improvement District) so that we can improve our downtown appearance, helping growth and adding services. Businesses are the lifeblood of our community.
In closing, we have made great strides in changing the perception of the Village Board. We are here to listen, to assist, and to partner with all. We have made some very difficult decisions in the past year and there will be more looming, but we are making those choices because we feel they are the right ones. We make decisions for today, not for the re-election campaign of tomorrow. We will use our passion and our commitment to make our community a better place to live and visit. Thank you for your continued support. We hope to see you soon, and we’d like you to join us in helping to shape our future.
The Watkins Glen Village Board:
Mayor Mark Swinnerton
Trustee Scott Gibson
Trustee Kevin Smith
Trustee Wayne Weber
Trustee Paul Clifford
Photo in text: Mayor Mark Swinnerton