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October 18, 2013

‘Pops, Patriots and Fireworks’

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Bedford town supervisor candidates debate issues


By ANTHONY R. MANCINI

Bedford town supervisor candidates Don Scott and Chris Burdick debated shared services, finances, storm response and much more at an interview at The Record-Review office in Katonah in early October. Each is seeking the position after incumbent Lee Roberts announced her retirement earlier this year, following more than a decade as supervisor.

Mr. Scott, a Republican, is a former Katonah-Lewisboro school board member and president, and serves both as a wetlands commissioner and Katonah fire commissioner, among other civic roles. He lives in Katonah. Among his community functions, Mr. Burdick, a Democrat who lives in Bedford, is a former wetlands commissioner and has served on the Bedford town board since 2007.

The candidates were interviewed by Anthony R. Mancini and R.J. Marx at The Record-Review offices in Katonah.


Record-Review: What makes you the best candidate for supervisor in Bedford?

Mr. Burdick: I come from a family that has been involved in public service. My mother was president of the school board and was mayor of her town. My father was on the planning board. We were always raised with the value that you really need to give back to the community. My wife and I have raised our three children here in Bedford, and Bedford’s been very good to us. I’ve always felt that I don’t want to be just the guy who takes the train into the city, comes home and then calls it a day. I felt that I could contribute something, being on the town board. I feel that my experience as a town board member is training for coming into the supervisor’s position. I feel that Lee’s done a very good job. Those are very big shoes to fill, whether they’re by Don or me or anyone else, and I hope that I can do as well. The tone that has been set I would want to continue, which is a board that works together well regardless of being a mixed board of Republicans and Democrats. We have plenty of lively discussions, but we always try to find something that works for the group, and that’s certainly something that’s very positive. I think that reflects the town. It’s a stark contrast to what goes on in Washington or Albany.

Mr. Scott: It’s because it’s something that I want to do. It’s been a natural progression for me to take the next step since I’ve moved back to town. I first moved to Bedford as a fourth-grader, but then moved back to town to raise my family here in Katonah. I know I can help, and that’s why I want to do this job. This campaign is really a job interview. It’s about skills that you bring and experiences that you bring and the relationships that you bring to benefit the town to get people on the same page and to move the town forward. I have a small business. My office is across the street. The skills of a small-businessman are extremely useful to being a town supervisor. Every day is different. You wake up in the morning, you have to engage, inspire; you have to respond to crises; you have to communicate. A supervisor role is really a significantly different position than being a councilperson. You have to lead and you have to take positions and you have to be clear. What’s right isn’t always popular and what’s popular isn’t always right. Knowing Lee over the last 15 years and working with her over the last 10, to have her support and endorsement is really something that is an inspiration to me.


Record-Review: We can say with some certainty that something is going to be cut from the budget to get under the state tax cap. Where do you see are the potential for savings or cuts, if any?

Mr. Scott: I’ve been to virtually every town board meeting over the last several years. I’ve followed this closely. One of the things I take from my school board experience, I’m glad that Chris and the rest of the board acted on my recommendation, was to put together a five-year financial plan and share with the community what the budget’s going to look like going forward. We did that at the school district and it’s not always a pretty picture, but it’s one that the community needs to know about. That budget presentation was made in August and it shows that the town is in a structural deficit. The school district had the same issues and they relate to personnel and pensions and healthcare costs. I was actually disappointed that Chris came to that meeting and had no real suggestions. I’ll be clear on what the suggestions are: structural deficits require changing the structure of what you’re doing. It can be done without layoffs. It can be done by increased productivity. It can be done by getting two contracts in place with the two unions that we don’t have contracts with.

Record-Review: Would you like to see an increase in employee contributions for certain unions?

Mr. Scott: I don’t think it’s fair to comment on the specifics of what would go into a contract settlement because the other side’s not here. It puts me in a poor position as to being on a negotiating team. Pension and healthcare costs and work rules are all of the ingredients that go into a good settlement. I can tell you from knocking on doors and talking to town employees, it’s a drag in morale to not have a contract.

Mr. Burdick: I’d like to set the record on a few things. Don might’ve missed a meeting or two. I know he missed an important work session on the budget in which we actually got some encouraging news. Our healthcare contribution, instead of looking at a 16 percent to 18 percent increase, we’re looking more in the range of 6 percent, according to our comptroller.

In addition, we had anticipated that we might take another hit for our contribution to the retirement system, and that looks as though it’s going to be flat. Those two are very important to us in terms of seeing that we’re not going to have the kind of wide gap that we’ve had this time last year. We had nearly a million-dollar gap that we had to try and figure out where we were going to get the funds to bring us under the tax cap.

Record-Review: So you’re saying that cuts are not going to be necessary.

Mr. Burdick: Certainly no layoffs. I’m opposed to having any layoffs. I actually disagree with Don in terms of what the town board has stated, and I don’t think there’s anything to be shy about. We would like to see our bargaining units contribute to the health plan. Our white-collar workers are already doing that. That goes up to 18 percent next year. Elected officials are doing it.

Record-Review: If it meant a layoff or increase in health benefit contributions, would you be able to make that decision?

Mr. Scott: One fundamental that drives me is a Teddy Roosevelt line “Do what you can with what you’ve got where you are,” and that’s where we are right now. Incomes are not growing. You can’t grow the cost of government faster than people’s incomes. I don’t think you rule out or rule in anything. We know what the drivers are and we have to deal with it. You have to role up your sleeves and you have to negotiate.

Record-Review: So it’s situational.

Mr. Scott: It is situational. I was proud when I was on the school board when we had one of the first negotiations that I had. It was a win-win. We had changes in work rules. We also had changes in healthcare contributions, and that was a real breakthrough. These are some things that you build over time with relationships, with people that you’re negotiating with. The revenue is just like your income is like at home. You see what the revenue is and you have to match expenses to revenues.

Mr. Burdick: One of the things we need to take a look at is the fact that things can be done less expensively without reducing services. When I first came onto the town board, one of the things that surprised me was that we were not competitively bidding insurance services. That’s a big-ticket item with the town.

Early on I said that in the interests of taxpayers we ought to take a hard look at that and put that out for bid. We’ve actually had over a half-million dollars in savings because I was pressing for more competitive bidding. This is an example of where town board members actually do a whole lot more than Don is indicating they do. I go through all the purchase orders, and when I first was doing that I was noticing that we were not competitively bidding electrical repairs, plumbing repairs, car repairs, all of which now are bid out. If I’m elected supervisor, I’m going to take a fresh look at every service we provide and see whether there’s a way in which, without slashing that service, can we do it less expensively?


Record-Review: What do you see as Bedford’s No. 1 infrastructure need?

Mr. Burdick: We must address the septic problems. We have issues specifically in Katonah and Bedford Hills. Having a system-wide sewer system, however, it’s an enormous expense. The estimates were $15 million to $16 million years back and likely would be much more now. Every time that this had been put up for a vote it was resoundingly defeated. We know that sewage is going into our groundwater, and we have to address it. We can have a pilot program for decentralized septic systems that wouldn’t have the kind of footprint that you need for a large septic system, using advanced technology that’s worked just fine in places like Nantucket. We’re only trying to apply to Bedford what’s working well in other communities that have had similar problems. I’m very optimistic that we can do that at significantly less expense.


Record-Review: Don, what do you say?

Mr. Scott: Septic is certainly a challenge. Technology’s going to be the future there and I agree with Chris completely. I’m disappointed that it took 10 years to have one of these experimental systems. Infrastructure generally is something that needs to be addressed. The condition of the roads comes up frequently. Our roads have taken a tremendous beating over the last few years. It’d be interesting looking at the possibility of bonding a major road upgrade program because I think the savings that you get by doing a larger project would offset the cost. There’s been discussion of burying electrical lines. That is not a huge expense, so I’d like to look at the possibility as interest rates are at all time lows.

Mr. Burdick: We’ve increased this year from $750,000 to almost $900,000 that we’re putting into road repairs. I think that it should be higher. I agree with Don on that. We certainly took advantage of the low interest rates with the consolidated water district’s new filtration plant, so we’re certainly no strangers to using the bond markets to our favor.


Record-Review: Last year we witnessed a really horrific scenario of being without power for days. Do you think that the town did enough in terms of working with the utilities? What would you do to improve the response rate?

Mr. Scott: I think Lee did a tremendous job and was working, as she frequently does, 70-hour weeks doing everything that she could. There was, I’m sure, a lot of frustration. There were some communications issues and a number of other issues about distribution of ice and other services.

One of the things that I went to the town board and suggested was to do what the military refers to as an after-action report, to say: OK, we’ve gone through this storm. What did we do wrong? What can we do better? How would we change it? Town employees were working overtime and it was just a tremendous effort, but still it could be better. Clearly we’re in a weather pattern that suggests that there are going to be more storms like that. I’d like to have everybody in the town know what the town has learned and how we’ll be better prepared in the future.

Mr. Burdick: My hat’s off to DPW and to the police that I think responded with just herculean efforts to try to cope with what was the worst storm damage that we’ve had. I was very disappointed with NYSEG in particular. We had a situation in which we had the National Guard here. They were there all day waiting for NYSEG to give some direction. They ended up leaving and going to another town. To me, the utilities have to be held accountable when there’s poor performance like that. Communication was horrific.

We have to press our state representatives. We have to press the public service commission. The crisis is over, but we need to sit down with NYSEG, we need to sit down with Con Ed, and say “how are you going to address it this time?” We need to have a task force that’s comprised both of people within the town, our emergency responders and members of the town board. I certainly support what Pete Harckham is proposing countywide, which would require that cell towers have emergency generators. I think that we did well within the town, but we can always do more. Whatever the cost of the storms, there’s no question there. We’re going to have more of them and it’s something that we have to address.

Mr. Scott: Around the one-year anniversary of the storm it’s just disappointing to me that there has not been a succinct analysis of what went right and what went wrong. Obviously everybody’s mad at NYSEG and Con Ed, but how could we improve our game and get to that point?

Mr. Burdick: I don’t disagree with a need for going forward, but as a town board member, not everything is within my control. We have on the town website an emergency program that has a date of 2005 on it. Now, Don’s on the communications committee. I’d like you to stay on the communications committee and fix our website. There’s no question that we’re going to have to do more on it and I’d like to see us have a fresh start.


Record-Review: Do you see an opportunity for more shared services?

Mr. Scott: There are opportunities to economize. You have to commit to doing them. There’s a lot of territorialism about it, but you look at the fire districts, I was able to get the three fire districts to get together with the commissioners and start discussions about that. There are certainly opportunities within the fire districts, and as supervisor, I’d actually like to facilitate those discussions. We’ve had a fire system that basically grew out of how far a mule could drag a tank, and that’s kind of how a lot of the fire departments were cited. You’ve got to measure how you’re doing and then you have to measure yourself against that plan going forward.

Mr. Burdick: We certainly can do some in the area of shared services and also in job sharing. We do shared services now already, and I think that our department heads do a very good job in looking for those opportunities. I want to see us do it more and I think Don’s right that we should be encouraging that not simply within the town, but to the extent that we can assist other levels of government in suggesting ways of saving money within those districts.


Record-Review: Bedford got middling grades from the county’s fair housing monitor. Do you think they could have done better or they could have done worse? Should Bedford be concerned about meeting the settlement agreement in the future and if so, how would you approach that?

Mr. Scott: It’s very troubling to see what’s coming out of Washington in relation to zoning. Their view seems to be that by definition zoning is discriminatory, and that has some consequences. It’s unclear to see how it’s going to impact Bedford. I think that Bedford has a great record in affordable housing and has been a regional leader in this for all the right reasons. I want to be 100 percent crystal clear that I will fight tooth and nail to make sure that every zoning decision for Bedford is made in Bedford, and I hope Chris will join me in that pledge.

Mr. Burdick: I think it’s a bit of a red herring to suggest that there’s a concerted effort to dismantle Bedford’s zoning ordinance. There was nothing in the report that indicated that we had a problem with our zoning ordinance. We were one of the first to adopt the model ordinance that the county had proposed. We’ve also been one of the first to have what we adopted back in 2005 in the affordable housing component of our zoning code. I actually think that in Bedford it’s a non-issue because it’s been done well. We’re recognized as having done it well, and the planning board always looks for opportunities to see where it can be done.

Record-Review: You don’t see a threat from HUD intervention?

Mr. Burdick: When you read what is required under the settlement, I don’t see that we have an issue here in Bedford. I think it’s alarmist and I think it’s also misleading to suggest that Bedford’s zoning ordinance is under attack. If it ever were to become under attack, then there’s no question that I would fight to protect our zoning ordinance. I just think that this is akin to what we hear out of the county campaign, and I’m disappointed with Don that he feels that he has to raise it like this.

Mr. Scott: I will make sure that the zoning decisions are made in Bedford.

Record-Review: Is Bedford under imminent risk?

Mr. Scott: There are several other towns that are rated worse than Bedford, but I was clear the first time. We’ve already made one change to our zoning at the suggestion of the county, which was at the suggestion of HUD, and that is to remove preferences.

Mr. Burdick: In our ordinance we had preferences for teachers and for emergency responders. They have been eliminated.

Mr. Scott: That is of some concern.

Record-Review: You would rather have the town make the decision on its own?

Mr. Scott: Exactly. This is something that will be playing out over the years, and I just want to be clear that zoning decisions should be made in Bedford. It’s a home rule state and I will support that, and I didn’t get a clear answer from my opponent on that. Is this something that’s imminent? Absolutely not. It is something that you need to be clear about.

Mr. Burdick: I do think that it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t keep the preferences for teachers and emergency responders. I’m not sure that it’s going to have a practical effect because some 80 percent of the pool of applicants are local residents. I’m not sure that we’re going to find that we’re cutting out the people who need it. Where the energy should be instead of fulminated over Obama or things coming out of the federal government is, let’s roll up our sleeves, get to work and see if we can find more opportunities to construct or require more affordable housing. One of the things that we’ve been talking about is the possibility of seeing whether existing acquired affordable housing might meet the requirements, which I think is something that makes a whole lot of economic sense.


Record-Review: Do you see a need for revaluation?

Mr. Burdick: I think it’s the wrong move. I don’t really see the benefit in joining with Greenburgh and other down-county communities that have a far more severe problem with challenges to their assessments. The grievances in the assessment challenges that we have had have gone down since last year.

Going down this path just doesn’t solve the equalization problem because we don’t have all of the communities that are in each of the school districts that would be interested in participating in this. I am not persuaded that we have a fairness problem. We have a system in place where people can grieve their taxes. If that doesn’t work than they can challenge it through court. It costs something like $900,000 in order to put this in place. I’m not persuaded that it’s going to solve the problem.

Mr. Scott: It’s interesting. My first involvement with the school board was, after a 5 percent or 6 percent tax increase for Katonah-Lewisboro resulted in a 14.5 percent tax increase in Katonah, to understand how equalization rates work, and it is a horrible system. Chris and I agree on that. This is something that’s got to be done. You can’t move alone because the advantages of moving alone for a reval just don’t outweigh the cost. You make one-third of the people unhappy, one-third stay the same, and one-third become happy, and that’s usually a bad start for a political solution to anything. You have to show leadership to start talking about it and to figure out with our leaders in the county and across the state how to attack it. We’ve probably got the worst system in the country for doing this.

Record-Review: You would have voted to go for the study?

Mr. Scott: There was no cost associated with it. I would want to know what the cost is. There’s a lot that has to happen and a lot of moving parts have to get moving in the right direction. Advocating getting the data and price and moving forward are two completely different things.


Record-Review: The R and the D in your names, do they mean anything in a local election?

Mr. Burdick: I think that both Don and I are practical about it. Having a major party with which to run is important. There are a certain number of people who will only vote for Don because he’s a Republican. There are a certain number of people who will only vote for me because I’m a Democrat. Then there are people who are going to say, “My party affiliation is not the determining factor on who I’m going to vote for.” I think it would ignore a political reality to say that it makes no difference. It made a real difference when Don and I were vying for the Independence Party line or for the Conservative Party line. We recognize that having that additional line on the ballot can give you a little boost. I certainly do hope that people will evaluate me for my performance, for the fact that I’ve been on the town board, have the experience, helped to hold down taxes quite a bit without slashing services. I’m hoping people would look at that record and say, “I don’t care that he’s a Democrat. I’m a Republican. I’m still going to vote for him.” It does make some difference. Will it decide the election? I don’t know the answer to that, but it will have an impact.

Mr. Scott: I share everyone’s horror on what’s going on in Washington and the dysfunction there.  The way I choose to move is to get it right in Bedford. That’s how I’ve spent my last 25 years in this town being involved in different things. People know me for what I’ve done and they know that local elections are about local things. It’s about preserving our environment. It’s about protecting the character of the town. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats. I ran two school board elections. My friend estimated that I got 70 percent of the Democratic vote in Katonah. People saw what I was about, saw the work that I did, and that’s what they appreciate. I think it’s about the people who are running and I have a lot of confidence in the intelligence of Bedford voters to look at the qualification of the people that they’re making choices about.


Record-Review: Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to bring up at this time?

Mr. Burdick: The community should be assured that whoever is elected supervisor, we are going to see that Bedford 2020 is going to continue to have strong support. I certainly support the continuation of the open space levy. There’s still elements of the master plan that should be looked at. The tree ordinance needs to be updated. We should take another look at the wetlands law. The master plan itself is 10 years old. I would put in place a master plan committee. It’s a long process. It would take a couple years.

Mr. Scott: I’m extremely proud to have the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters. I’m proud to be running with Mary Beth Kass, who’s one of the founders of Bedford 2020, and having her on the ticket was also another thing that drove my decision to jump in. I worked very hard with a number of people and we founded a group called Citizens for Clean Water and Open Space to promote the passage of the open space referendum. I will use the bully pulpit off the supervisor’s office to make sure that those kinds of things continue to happen.


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