Sunday, Jul 14th

To Affect the Quality of the Day, that is the Highest of Arts: Interview with Village Trustee Jonathan Lewis

JonathanLewisJonathan Lewis is running for a second term for Scarsdale Village TrusteeFinancier, philanthropist, author, and community volunteer Jonathan Lewis is now running for his second term as Scarsdale Village Trustee. A former member of the Scarsdale School Board, President of the Scarsdale Forum, President of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation of Westchester, and treasurer of the Phi Beta Kappa Society he is well versed in budgeting and leadership. In his interview for his first run for Village Board he said, “My father was a decorated officer in World War Two and he taught me that the most important duty in life, after taking care of your family, is service to your community. When the Citizens Nominating Committee asked me if I would consider serving as a Village Trustee, my answer was yes.”

Now, two years later, and contemplating his second term on the Scarsdale Board of Trustees, Lewis shared thoughts on his experience and the state of the Village. Here is what he said:

-What have you enjoyed most about your first term?

Exchanging ideas with my fellow trustees, staff, and neighbors; sharpening policy through debate; and trying to make a difference in my hometown all make it an honor and a great life experience to serve the Village of Scarsdale as a trustee. When I was in high school, and we read Walden, I wrote down a quote that I kept in my wallet for years: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” That year, I asked my father to take me to visit Walden Pond for my 17th birthday, and that value and aspiration from Walden has stayed with me ever since. So, what I enjoyed most about my first term was being given the chance to affect the quality of the day in Scarsdale.

-What are some of the challenges facing the Village today?

The Village of Scarsdale entered the COVID-19 crisis with great strengths: a strong fiscal position, a highly professional staff, great neighbors and volunteers who serve on a wide range of Village committees, boards and councils, and a great brand name as a wonderful community that offers an exceptional lifestyle. During this crisis we have been tested and demonstrated resilience in how we have approached the management of the crisis. Yet, the choices we make during this crisis, and the choices the communities around us make, will likely determine who emerges from this crisis stronger, with a healthier market position, and who emerges weaker. This will impact property values, which in the long term impact our fiscal position. This is a time when we need to pivot and take the long view. Thankfully, Scarsdale is a community that is prepared for challenges and capable of addressing them.

-Do you think residents might be willing to pay a bit more to maintain services at the current level?

I am listening carefully to my neighbors when they speak at public comment. We are fortunate to have a cadre of committed neighbors who show up and share ideas with the Village Board. Yet, the small number of participants at these meetings gives me pause about offering a view on my neighbors’ willingness to pay more during a great financial and humanitarian crisis. So, I stay focused on the fairness of our tax burden relative to the broader economic landscape, and the consequences of higher taxes on our relative competitive positioning versus our peer communities. It is natural that my fellow trustees and I will continue to engage in vigorous, but non-partisan debate on these issues as we try to strike the right balance. Given that so many of our neighbors in our community are suffering economically, and have experienced personal loss due to the pandemic, I think we need to try to strike a balance that leads to the lowest possible tax increase consistent with a Scarsdale quality of life.

-Sometimes it feels like a few very vocal residents are the only ones giving input to the Village Board. Do you believe that the Village hears from a representative swath of residents? How can you know if you’re voting in the interest of the majority if so many are disengaged?

Our traditional Village Board meetings, and the format of these meetings with public comment periods are wonderful and they remind me of the type of New England Town Meetings that were the bedrock of building a democratic society in our nation. Yet, we only hear from a very small portion of the community at these meetings. We need to find a way to take this 17th century idea of an open town hall meeting and find a way to create a virtual town hall consistent with 21st century lifestyles. We have begun to move in that direction. The pandemic led us to conduct our meetings via Zoom, which certainly has made it easier for people to participate; yet the numbers are still very small. This leads me to conclude that this town hall format, even when it is online, has its limitations as we move deeper into the 21st century. While we will always want to maintain our traditional meeting format, we must offer new ways for neighbors to participate. Is it too futuristic to imagine a Village of Scarsdale app that everyone can download on their cellphones so we can gather information and views more broadly and rapidly to inform our discussions? I think we need to reimagine how a village government should operate in the 21st century, and how we use technology, as we think about how we build a more sustainable business model for village services.

-What do you think can be done about the Scarsdale Pool which is in need of renovations and improvements?scarsdalepool

The Scarsdale Pool is a cherished community resource. I applaud the vision of our neighbors who decades ago conceived of a pool complex in harmony with nature and its surroundings, emphasizing lawns and open spaces. Yet, membership is down, the pool is no longer as financially sustainable as it has been in the past, and we need to rethink how to revitalize this great resource so it not only survives, but thrives, and draws home buyers to our community and brings happiness to our neighbors and their children. To that end, we need a strategic planning process centered on the pool, and a true market survey to understand what will make the community usage rate rise. Informed by that data, we can better understand the strategic investments we need to make to increase the competitive positioning of the pool, and as a result, Scarsdale. We likely need to make major capital improvements to achieve these goals, and we will want good data to drive those decisions.

-The Village Board made a few recommendations to reduce home bulk and sent those to the land use boards for review. We haven’t heard back. What is your view of these potential changes?

I, like my fellow trustees, value private property rights. I believe it’s important that we adopt reasonable measures, collaborating with our land use boards, listening to our neighbors, and staying aware of peer community regulations to ensure that we are effective in our policy objectives, maintaining the character of our community, without being overly restrictive. Finding the delicate balance between private property rights and these community quality of life objectives will always be challenging, and always be of the utmost importance. The way our Village looks, the character of our neighborhoods, is an important contributor to our Scarsdale brand and how we manage these will impact everyone’s home values. That is why this issue is such an important policy matter.

-The Village Board just heard an appeal to raze a historic house which challenged the current Village preservation code. In your view can our preservation code hold up? Does it need to be strengthened?

While I cannot comment on any specific case, preservation is an important matter for our Village as are property rights. Years ago, when I was on the board of the Scarsdale Historical Society, I led and organized a Saturday morning series of family programs. These events included educating our families about our community history and our local heroes. We see this history every time we take a walk in our community, appreciate the balance between nature and development, and enjoy our parks and appreciate our historic homes. Preservation laws should evolve, our approach to preserving open spaces should evolve, just as our municipal government should evolve. We should think about more structured conversations on this subject to ensure we are always making progress.

-As a second term trustee, what issues do you hope to work on?

Jane Veron, who is running for mayor on the slate with me, has offered a valuable framework for how we should think about the future. Jane has proposed four pillars to guide our conversations and I believe these are exactly right:

Quality of Life
Public Safety
Economic Revitalization

In order to execute well within those pillars, Jane has offered that we need consider how to make progress in three key areas:


In a second term, I would hope to contribute to how we develop this strategic framework, so we can move our approach to municipal government deep into the 21st century. Our Scarsdale School District is a national model and our Scarsdale Village government can lead as well. If we execute well in communications, we are likely to better engage our neighbors and improve the feedback loop needed to drive the conception and implementation of effective policy. From a sustainability standpoint, if we intelligently integrate sustainability concepts into our four pillars, we will become a leader in sustainability. As our municipal government reduces its carbon footprint, protects our environment, and promotes more sustainable practices in our local economy, we will thrive. This approach can have meaningful financial benefits for the Village. We are likely to make meaningful capital investments in the years ahead, some of which will likely be financed by debt issuance. Municipal investors are searching for bonds issued by municipalities with good governance, social practices, and sustainability policies. If we execute well on these plans, bonds issued by the Village of Scarsdale may not only be AAA rated by credit agencies, they could also be the ESG investment of choice for tax-efficient investors. This could potentially lower our cost of capital and improve our financial profile. From a public safety perspective, I have worked on moving forward our cybersecurity posture as public safety enters the virtual world. Thinking through how a municipality responds to the public safety threats of the 21st century, whether they are weather related, cyber related, or otherwise, is essential. I would hope to continue to contribute to those conversations in a second term as well.

-In the next few years the Village may need to raise taxes or look for other revenue sources. Is there a possibility Scarsdale will be eligible for any COVID relief from the government? Can you envision any other potential sources of revenues?

We are hopeful to receive COVID relief direct aid, yet hope is not a strategy and we cannot budget our dreams. There are a variety of possible outcomes and we may be most likely to benefit from the administration's developing infrastructure plan, which could potentially offset the costs of some of our own urgent infrastructure needs. At this time, for example, we are in the midst of developing our own strategic water infrastructure plan, both to modernize our infrastructure and to enhance its sustainability. We have sought to access state and federal support for infrastructure improvements in the past and would hope to be successful in winning grants in the future for projects like these. It’s still early to know what the post-pandemic world looks like, yet we need to move forward optimistically, and that includes rethinking how we finance our municipal government. Studying how to develop Scarsdale’s economic base, as more companies move out of the City, is an area we should explore to diversify our revenues. Scarsdale should be the destination of choice of entrepreneurs looking for a home for their start-ups and their small businesses.

Anything else?

Making a difference in my hometown, improving the quality of life, and ensuring the sustainability of our Village, are the reasons that I run for Village Trustee. I am impressed with the quality, experience, and stature of my fellow candidates, and I am optimistic all members of the community agree.