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Board of Trustees Approves Gift Reserve Fund Tax Credit and Hears Heated Public Comments

1040formFollowing a public hearing this past Tuesday, the Scarsdale Board of Trustees approved the establishment of a charitable gift reserve fund tax credit to allow residents the option of offsetting the $10,000 cap on state and local property tax (SALT) deductions.

Any Scarsdale property owner who makes an unrestricted monetary contribution to the fund will be permitted to claim a credit against their village property tax equal to 95 percent of the donation. Residents are not permitted to claim a credit that exceeds their current year village tax.

One significant caveat, however, is that the IRS has yet to officially rule on whether such contributions are tax deductible. However, village staff are proceeding quickly to provide Scarsdale residents access to such a program in time for the 2018-19 tax year, should it be deemed acceptable.

The BOT established the fund last month; creating the tax credit was the second step in making the program possible. The public had an opportunity to discuss the issue and pose questions at the hearing, which was held during the BOT’s regularly scheduled board meeting.

Trustee Seth Ross opened the discussion by stating…”Because the 2018-19 village tax bill comes due in July, a decision… must be rendered in June in order for the benefit to be available to property owners. As a result of the short timeline, staff have already begun planning, pending the board decision… “ He continued, “The IRS may rule that the contributions are not permissible deductions for income tax purposes and recent reports in the media suggest that the IRS may be considering moving in that direction. In that regard, it is recommended… that taxpayers seek the advice of tax professionals before making any decision relating to how they will handle their tax payments, including the possibility of paying into a charitable gift fund.”

He then solicited comments from his fellow trustees, staff and SWC Country FairMembers of the Scarsdale Woman's Club turned out in force to help with the Country Fair June 10, the club's centennial gift to the community. Photo credit Lisa Van Gundymembers of the public. Trustee Justin Arest began by stating, “Firstly, we are not tax experts… we are not telling anyone how to file their taxes nor how to pay them. Governor Cuomo signed legislation creating the idea of charitable funds as a way to potentially restore deductibility for certain local taxes. Our action today does not necessarily endorse that policy, nor does it provide any assurances that it will be successful. We are merely working hard to ensure that… any resident that believes this scheme might be advantageous…and is aware of, and willing to accept… risks involved, may opt in. For anyone who chooses the charitable gift fund is not for them… may continue to pay taxes in the same manner as they always have.”

Arest went on, “Secondly, this is not a sure thing for residents… Opinions range from this being a foolish attempt that will not succeed, mainly because it was created… to avoid taxes; to ‘it has to work,’ because disallowing this program would jeopardize similar programs that…. are allowed in 22 states set up in response to the Tax Reform act of 1986… The bottom line is that would be doing this to benefit those residents who want to use it and hope to benefit from it. “

Arest then assured residents about the board’s intentions in adopting the program. “…fiscal prudence… and setting up this option for our residents are not competing interests. Because I have read some critique of the state in regard to the possibility that passing this law is … a substitute for tightening its belt, I feel the need to mention it. We all take our fiduciary duty very seriously and are sensitive to the economic pressures that our decisions can have… Please do not misunderstand our desire to help our residents tonight with an idea that we have less to worry about when it comes to optimizing our budget.”

He concluded by stating, “Lastly, speak to a tax expert… please. Speak to an advisor… someone who understands your specific situation and can discuss the potential risks and benefits with you.”

Bob Harrison (Fox Meadow Road) began the public comment portion of the hearing by stating, “I’ve been in touch with several accountants… the IRS has issued… a bulletin (stating) that they won’t honor a tax credit for this type of charitable gift reserve fund…comments that each person should be in touch with their own tax advisor are certainly appropriate. I guess it’s worthwhile approving it; each resident will have to make (his or her) own decision. “ He also asked for clarification on whether a resident would have to pay $105.26 for every $100 in tax due, or a 5 percent premium as opposed to simply paying the tax due. Village Treasurer Mary Lou McClure responded by saying, “It’s just a matter of arithmetic. If only 95 percent of the contribution would be eligible for…the credit claim, you have to work backwards from the tax amount due… You take your tax amount due, you divide by .95, and it’s more than just 105 percent.” Trustee Arest added, “She’s giving the illustration that, if you have a $100 tax bill, you have to pay $105.26 because only 95 percent can be credited toward your taxes.”

Bob Berg (Tisdale Road) followed, saying, “I would just urge residents to be very, very cautious in taking advantage of this law. It’s going to be challenged by the IRS; it’s not going to pass… It’s a tax scam; it’s a political ploy by the governor and it’s really a dangerous thing.” He then went on to say, “I understand why you’re going to pass this, I probably would agree with you in passing it in the very, very slight chance it will be upheld.”

With no additional comments, Ross closed the hearing, and members of the BOT and mayor voted unanimously to adopt the measure.

Aside from the public hearing on the charitable gift fund tax credit, the Scarsdale Board of Trustees meeting was rather routine, but lengthy due to review of a large number of finance, land use, legal and municipal services resolutions. The board also endorsed several police commendations for meritorious service and approved appointees to a variety of village boards and councils.

The general public comment session, perhaps generating more interest than usual after the last BOT meeting, covered a variety of topics, ranging from recycling and library renovation updates, to distributed antenna systems, preservation issues and the pending retirement of Scarsdale Village Attorney Wayne Esannason.

Public Comments

Progress and Kudos
Ron Schulhof (Springdale Road), chair of the Conservation Advisory Council, began microphoneby announcing that curbside pick up of food scraps began on June 4. “We’re in the second week of pickup, which happens on Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s always the first day of your trash (pickup); if you’re Monday-Thursday, you get a pick up on Monday; if you’re Tuesday-Friday, you get a pick up Tuesday.” He continued, “It’s been going fantastic for the residents; it’s been going fantastic for the village. In the first two weeks, we’ve picked up almost eight tons of food scraps. Those eight tons are out of the trash, which would normally be burned… (and) will be turned into soil in about three months.” He then encouraged residents to register for the program. Schulfhof also announced that a Furniture Sharehouse donation bin has been placed at the Scarsdale Recycling Center for resident donations “if you have any small furniture or household items… that would fit in an apartment, that’s where most (of those) who are receiving this furniture (live).” He concluded his comments by thanking the village government and staff, and residents for participating in these conservation programs and “being willing to lead.”

Diane Greenwald (Oak Lane), representing the Scarsdale Public Library Board of Trustees, provided a timeline for the library’s transition into its temporary home at Scarsdale Supply Field. “The children’s room will close for packing starting on Monday, June 18 and, then, the entire Olmstead Road building will close to patrons on Sunday, June 24.” She went on, “Library Loft, which is at supply field, 244 Heathcote Road, will open on Thursday, July 5… (It) will have the following services: a children’s room; a reference section; wifi; three public computers, a scanner and a copy machine; a new book section; audio books and DVDs; and magazines and newspapers. Seating will be limited; hours are reduced to accommodate shared parking with field users. Some popular programs will be held at other sites so stay tuned and check frequently for upcoming notifications… on our website.” She also reminded the public that cardholders are able to use other libraries in the Westchester Library System and urged residents to visit for more information.

Greenwald concluded her remarks by saying, “This move and closure is necessary while the current library undergoes a major transformation, made possible by funding from the Village of Scarsdale and generous donations from so many Scarsdale residents. We are proud of our public-private partnership resulting in robust support across our community, and cannot thank our campaign committee and donors enough for their generosity of time and resources… We have reached nearly $8 million in donations, which is extraordinary.”

countryfair1Girls line up to get their arms and faces painted by Liliana Benitez at the Scarsdale Woman's Club Country Fair June 10. Photo Credit Lisa Van GundyDAS Questions
Wendy Lee (Boulevard) followed up on her email correspondence with Mayor Dan Hochvert, stating her concerns about the installation of distributed antenna system (DAS) technology throughout the village. She thanked the mayor and village attorney for their responses, and then voiced her point of view. “Based on the articles I’ve read, it seems that the safety of DAS nodes is still a very controversial issue. I don’t believe that, because the RF (radio frequency) emissions are within FCC statutory limits, we should give automatic approval for installation of DAS nodes throughout… Scarsdale. A lot of these laws were enacted many, many years ago and did not contemplate the proliferation of 5G technology or installation of DAS nodes, especially in front of our homes.” Lee continued, “In addition, these DAS nodes have not been tested for long-term safety. I don’t think we can just say that (they are) harmless and go ahead… we should, perhaps, consider alternative technology. She then asked for clarification regarding the placement of nodes throughout the village, and is concerned about how close they can be positioned to homes. She asked the board and administration to consider a minimum distance requirement and also encouraged additional review of the matter, which would include public input.

Zoe Berg (Tisdale Road) echoed Lee’s sentiments by saying, “Wireless technologies are proliferating rapidly, in every aspect of our lives. And, while they may be convenient, emerging research suggests that they are also impacting our health, even at levels far below FCC standards.” She went on, “Small, but powerful, transmitters used to facilitate two-way communication, such as DAS, increase our exposure to wireless radiation… Long considered to be harmless, peer-reviewed research has demonstrated a myriad of adverse biological effects…(In) 2011, it was classified as a Group 2B carcinogen by the World Health Organization… The installation of DAS around our town would substantially increase our chronic low-level exposure to wireless radiation.” Berg then urged the board to consider health and safety issues if and when the technology is installed. “DAS antennas must be placed very far from residences and schools. Let’s operate via the precautionary principle… be smart about this and protect the health of our community,“ she concluded.

Now the Critics’ Turn
Jonathan Gruen (Brewster Road) followed by voicing his opinion about the exchange between Bob Harrison and Hochvert that took place at the last BOT meeting. “While most speakers were treated with dignity and respect, Bob Harrison was not…Throughout Bob’s speech, Mayor Hochvert routinely interrupted him… During this interaction, Mayor Hochvert’s tone and word choice clearly demonstrated that the board had no interest in what Bob had to say.” He went on, “…I would have never expected (that) one of our most outstanding residents would be treated with such little respect. Many residents believe, given what happened in (the last) board meeting, Mr. Harrison should receive a public apology… I expect that all Scarsdale residents should have their voices heard and respected. Mayor Hochvert, your job is to lead this town while respecting its laws and citizenry. Despite your personal grievances with any member of the public, you must treat them with respect and dignity… As mayor… you must do everything in your ability to inquire about their opinions and priorities… one way you can accomplish this is creating a survey of all residents… asking (them) for their opinions on important issues… (and to) rank their priorities, so that you’re spending your time and our tax dollars most efficiently.“

Bob Berg (Tisdale Road) then discussed the upcoming retirement of Village Attorney Esannason, effective June 30, and the search for his replacement. “Congratulations, Wayne, on your retirement. I wish you well in your new endeavors.” he began. “As has become abundantly clear over the past several years, the village’s legal issues are increasingly complex and controversial… I have, personally, completely disagreed with Village Attorney Esannason’s legal analysis on key issues over the last several years… Because the village has relied on the village attorney’s legal advice, the result has been extremely costly, disruptive and disturbing to many residents… A permanent replacement…should not be selected by the village manager and/or the village board alone. This position is too critical to be filled without the informed input of village residents…I respectfully insist that you solicit and then select seek a group of qualified residents, particularly…practicing attorneys to advise you in choosing the next Scarsdale Village Attorney.”

Berg also criticized the public comment period at the last BOT meeting. “I was very upset by how the public comment period was handled. It was pushed back way back past 9:00 pm…(it) is the most important part of the meeting (and) should be held right after the village manager presents, as it has been done for many, many years… (Further) most members of the public do not come here lightly. Most are intimidated to speak publicly, on television, and what they have to say is important…and should be important to you… Before Bob Harrison even spoke, the mayor was chiding him to stick strictly to a five-minute deadline; throughout his presentation, the mayor continuously interrupted him, distracted him… I was even more appalled by the rest of you, the trustees, (who) just sat there and said nothing… I hope I never see a resident… treated that way again.”

Tennis Anyone?
Bob Harrison (Fox Meadow Road) came next, representing the Scarsdale Summer Youth Tennis League, and took the opportunity to promote youth tennis in the village. He thanked the mayor for the village’s work with the school district to move along construction of a new comfort station at Scarsdale Middle School. He also discussed the 34th season of the summer youth tennis league, which begins on July 10. “This is the best bargain in Scarsdale youth sports… It’s for… boys and girls, ages 6 to 18; we play… four weekday evenings, Monday through Thursday, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. The players can come every night or pick nights… The great value of this program is that the youth player can get 32 hours of play over four weeks for the grand sum of $50.” He invited the public to contact him for more information at Applications can be obtained via the Scarsdale Parks and Recreation Department or at tennis courts throughout the village.

Plea for Preservation
Lika Levi (Lockwood Road) concluded the public comment session by raising questions about a variety of issues, including conservation and historic preservation. Specifically, she touched upon the large number of trees that are cut down each year in Scarsdale and pleaded with the board to do more to preserve Scarsdale’s older homes. She said, “We were all here last Tuesday to observe the hearing about 6 Fenimore Road… I hope we can circumvent loopholes (in historic preservation guidelines), and make our preservation laws much stronger.” She recently described the house as “a perfect example of what makes Scarsdale, Scarsdale.” Levi also stated that she hoped some portion of the newly established charitable gift fund would be allocated for parks and historic preservation purposes, and supported the idea of a resident survey to determine residents’ ideas and preferences in shaping public policy.

Mayor’s Responses
With regard to the village’s position on the public comment portion of public meetings, Hochvert had already referenced the issue in his opening remarks at the start of the board meeting, and provided some insight into his previous exchange with Harrison. “I think two of the primary things the public comment mic is used for are statements that somebody wants to share with the public (and) questions that a person believes should be of interest to the public. If you have prepared questions or statements, as most people do, usually that will fit into our time limit.” He further explained, “What’s not a part of the normal use of that microphone is conversation with the board. However, as Mr. Harrison will attest, if he calls me on the phone, there is no time limit.”

Hochvert then mentioned that he did some research on the issue and cited the Citizen Advocacy Center’s best practices for public commentary. “They suggest that the time limit should be three minutes at the microphone… (and) the total time period should be limited to 30 minutes. Of course, we have five minutes, not three minutes, and we have no limit on the time that the entire audience might want to take. I think it’s important that we go back to the long-established practice… of five minutes. At the end of all (comments), if there are answers (we can offer), or… ask the staff the answer, we’ll do that. If we have to look for the answer, we will make sure whoever asked the question gets the information.” He concluded by saying “I believe our practice is a good one; it has benefits for the trustees and the audience… Certainly, if there’s a difficulty, like there was with reval, I understand that the board is more lenient with the timing of the speaker at the microphone. But, I’d like people to, please, fit your comments into the five-minute interval.”

In response to Lee and Zoe Berg’s concerns about DAS technology, Hochvert stated that DAS technology is currently in place just on state roads. “We do not have the authority to regulate based on the RF energy that is transmitted. But we have questioned whether the pole locations could be placed a certain distance from the nearest house and the answer is yes. We are still working with folks on DAS, so there has not been any decision yet.” He also followed up on Bob Berg’s question about the process to hire a new village attorney by stating that no decision has been made as of yet.

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