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Chatham taxpayers organize in wake of tax rate hike

CHATHAM–Discontent over the budget and the priorities of the Village Board still simmered this week as a group of about 30 people gathered at the Crellin Park pavilion Sunday, May 23, to discuss what changes the village needs and how those changes could happen.

In addition to choosing four individuals to coordinate tasks like gathering information about village government, holding events and shepherding participation, the group, which decided by consensus not to assume a name, also focused on communications. And within less 24 hours of its first meeting, Tom Curran, one of the organizers, had launched a blog called Village chalkboard, at http://chathamvillage.wordpress.com.

Monday, May 17, at an “emergency meeting,” the Village Board held the third meeting in a week on the proposed annual village budget, adopting a $1.2-million spending plan that carries a 4.6% rate tax increase. That was a considerable reduction from the budget presented for the first time a week earlier, when the board proposed boosting the tax rate by 12.6%. That initial proposal, introduced at the required public hearing on the budget Tuesday, May 11, provoked anger and criticism from village residents and business owners, and the mood was, if anything, more disapproving two days later, when village trustees introduced a proposal with a tax rate increase of 8.6%.

Among the most contentious of issues is the size and cost of the village Police Department, which, by some calculations, accounts for more than a third of annual village expenditures from the general fund.

Even with the final budget showing a much smaller hike in the rate, taxpayers began talking in person and online about what they might do next.

The topic of the cost of police coverage came up at Sunday’s informal gathering, with village resident Dave O’Connor, a member of the Chatham Board of Education, saying that the question facing the group is, “What is the proper sizing of the Police Department.”

But Rusty Vasac, a lifelong resident of the town who owns rental properties in the village, said he did not want the gathering to dwell on “police bashing,” preferring instead to discuss ways to gather information about the operation of village government so citizens can become better informed.

As basketball players scrimmaged on the courts next to the pavilion, the discussion turned to the prospect of dissolving the village government, but the focus soon returned to the need for people to develop a greater understanding of how the village works. One of the factors making the situation more complex is that half the village lies in the Town of Chatham and the other half in the Town of Ghent.

Brin Quell, a member of the village Planning Board, said that change will come only if people get involved. “If you don’t come to the board meetings, you don’t count.”

That led to a proposal that at least two members of the group attend each village board meeting, although some people at the meeting urged even more people to attend the meetings.

One of the coordinators of the Sunday meeting was Michael Richardson, a professional benefits consultant, who has worked with scores of communities around the state. A recent resident of the village, Mr. Richardson has volunteered to work with the Village Board to look for ways to reduce personnel costs and has a contract for the village for that work. For technical reasons he will receive $1 for his services.

As the meeting progressed, Mr. Richardson nudged the process along by suggesting the tasks that needed to be accomplished and clarifying who would take on certain responsibilities, so that by the time the session broke up there were: Mary Ellen Reidy, events coordinator; Tom Curran, communication coordinator; Jon Morrell, participation coordinator; Mr. Richardson will serve as information gathering coordinator.

In addition to the blog the group plans to remain in touch via email, with about 40 names on the email list as of mid-week following the meeting. One of the names on the email list is village Trustee Lael Locke.

As the group made plans to stay in touch electronically at the Sunday meeting, some people said that not everyone in the village uses email and the web and that if the group wanted to effect change it would have to connect these taxpayers too.

 

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