How has the Village of Scarsdale fared through the COVID crisis? That was the subject of Scarsdale Mayor Marc Samwick’s address to the Scarsdale Forum on Thursday February 11 in which he discusses the Village’s response to the crisis, steps to assist local businesses, Village finances, combatting racism and police reform.
Read his comments here:
In 2019, who would have imagined we would be holding the annual State of the Village by Zoom? I don’t think that I had even heard of Zoom in 2019.
Here we are, though, nearly a full year into the COVID-19 pandemic, speaking with each other through Zoom, only able to see a few Brady Bunch vignettes of the audience at one time. I yearn to return to seeing people in-person, exchanging thoughts and concerns at a Mayor’s Coffee event, and experiencing the visual cues that really help to cultivate enhanced meaning during normal conversation – Zoom isn’t quite natural to me, but it’s slowly becoming more normal. I have to admit that, like many of you, I definitely enjoy the perk of wearing sweatpants.
Despite the dampening of direct social interaction through technology, perhaps more residents are able to attend, albeit virtually, as they can do so from the comfort of their homes without needing to brave this cold night.
Thank you, Madelaine and the Scarsdale Forum, for hosting this annual event. And, thank you to the residents who have joined us this evening. Because of your efforts to be informed and engaged in local governance and civic affairs, our community is a much better place to live, raise a family, and grow older together.
The word of the year is certainly “unprecedented,” as we have heard an unprecedented number of times in the media. With that, I will endeavor not to use that word again during this address.
COVID-19 has dramatically altered the landscape of life. Frankly, it is difficult to process on many levels. Furthermore, we are confronted with the reality that we are still in the midst of this battle. So, please continue to focus on staying healthy – physically and mentally.
Getting the virus' spread under control is the key to saving lives and reopening schools and businesses. The tools to achieve that — face coverings, social distancing, and vaccines — are also the most effective weapons against the more contagious variants that could threaten America's progress.
Now, I will highlight some of the pandemic-induced impacts to Village operations and our organizational response, as staff and the Village Board pivoted into a new reality.
In the early stages of the pandemic, we experienced difficulty locating personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, and other safety and disinfection supplies. Of note, The Scarsdale Chinese Association was among the first to help by donating face coverings to the Village for our staff and others. The Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corp not only responded to COVID-19 calls when the pandemic was not well understood and appropriate PPE was not yet widely available, risking their personal health, safety and welfare, but they also helped the Village by providing access to supplies as they were able to locate them. New York State and the National Guard later assisted by delivering cases of liquid hand sanitizer manufactured by incarcerated individuals – they made a big splash, both literally (if you’ve used the sanitizer, you understand the reference) and figuratively, with photo ops and the like.
In response to the rapidly evolving regulatory and public health landscape, we closed Village facilities, including Village Hall and others, transitioned many of our staff to remote work environments, and developed “team-based” schedules to provide for continuity of service to the community. To illustrate, Sanitation crews were divided into teams working alternate schedules to reduce the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission amongst our staff taking down the entire operation. To accomplish this, Highway personnel, a majority of whom had never performed sanitation work before, pitched-in to help under our emergency circumstances.
Similar team-based schedules were implemented in other areas of Village operations, as well, most recently at Village Hall in early December 2020 following department-wide quarantines in response to staff exposure. The Village Hall team-based schedules continue in effect at this time, so all residents are encouraged to have patience when visiting for needed services; in-person staffing is at roughly 50% our pre-COVID levels, so delays may occur. Most importantly, while most Westchester municipalities remain closed to the public or available by appointment only, Scarsdale Village Hall remains fully open to the public for business, Monday through Friday from 9:00am-5:00pm.
At a policy level, the Village Board aggressively pursued opportunities and authorized regulatory modifications to assist our residents and local businesses in contending with the crushing fiscal stress experienced in association with the pandemic. The following are among our many efforts made in this regard:
1. Adopted local laws providing for second tax collections for School and Village taxes;
2. Opted into County law to extend the late penalty date for County taxes;
3. Collaborated with the Scarsdale Business Alliance and local merchants to support Village businesses, including such measures as authorizing the Spencer Tent, modifying local laws to allow for wares on sidewalks and sidewalk café time extensions, waiving associated fees, and relaxing parking enforcement. Please join me and support our local businesses by continuing to Shop and Dine the Dale;
4. Collaborated with Westchester County, Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, the State Legislature and others to hold ConEd accountable for improved emergency preparedness and response performance. In fact, I testified to a joint session of the State Legislature to press for more utility and telecom accountability and Trustee Jonathan Lewis deftly served on a regional working group, United Westchester, having done an outstanding job preparing and presenting actionable recommendations to harden our infrastructure to seek to avoid similar outages in the future;
5. Engaged extensively with County and State officials throughout the pandemic on topics of public health and emergency orders; and
6. The Village Manager and I met with newly elected Congressman Bowman to introduce him to our Village and to share our priorities with our new representative, which may be of value in gaining support for future grant opportunities and local legislative priorities.
With great foresight and demonstrating an appropriate level of fiscal stewardship, the Village Board and staff also undertook an appraisal of necessary operational and fiscal responses to observed and projected impacts of the pandemic. Early on, we strategically established a COVID-19 Emergency Reserve Fund of $2.225M, derived from FY 2019-20 Operating and Capital account appropriations, and concurrently implemented immediate austerity spending restrictions, which remain in effect at this time. These forward-looking strategies have played out well, as the FY 2021-22 proposed budget benefits significantly from our having undertaken the necessary financial mitigation measures at the time we did.
Despite our prudent fiscal planning, there are difficult decisions to be made in developing the FY 2021-22 Village Budget, and few residents will be satisfied with every choice we will need to make. We are diligently working to minimize the level of taxation necessary to support the FY 2021-22 Budget and are exploring a wide array of alternatives to balance our competing needs. Please know that the budgetary impacts of COVID-19 are likely to continue beyond FY21-22 requiring a multi-year approach over the next few fiscal years.
Speaking of the budget, we held our most recent budget work session last night via Zoom. Here are a few of the highlights to-date:
• At the outset of this year’s budget process, we were faced with the prospect of a 4.87% increase to the tax levy. Thus far, we have whittled that down to a 3.91% increase, or $217 on the average priced house in Scarsdale. But, our work is not done.
• Having started with a budget gap in excess of $4.2M on First Pass, the Third Pass gap was $1.6M and we continue to make progress in reducing it. To date, the budget gap has been reduced with a $2.25M General Fund Balance transfer, $200K in reduced expenses, and $192K increase in revenues;
• On the revenue side, parking fees and fines have sharply declined. Meanwhile, sales tax and revenues attached to property sales and building improvements are holding up well in response to increased property sales, as people look for homes outside of New York City, and refinances, as property owners take advantage of historically low interest rates.
While we endeavored to stay ahead of COVID-19 from both an operational and policy perspective, other significant events were running in parallel, urgently requiring our time and attention.
Nationally, there was sustained civil unrest in connection with recurring police-involved deaths of persons of color. Locally, we experienced – and many of us participated in – a vigil in Chase Park attended by over 500 people, possibly the largest such event in our community history.
Following the Chase Park vigil in June 2020, the Ad Hoc Council to Combat Racism and Bias (CCRB) was formed by resolution of the Village Board on July 20, 2020.
Since that time, the CCRB has been undertaking research and convening Listening Sessions to hear from persons of color about their experiences with diversity and inclusion in Scarsdale. The most recent Listening Session was open to anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or residency status, wishing to relate an experience relevant to the CCRB’s charge. To facilitate broad public participation in this effort, including those unable to attend a CCRB Listening Session, the CCRB also collected feedback through an online Community Experience Questionnaire. CCRB volunteers are now in the process of reviewing and analyzing the information and feedback they have gathered to-date and will present a report of findings and recommendations to the Village Board and the community on March 23, 2021.
In parallel to the CCRB’s work, and against the backdrop of civil unrest, Governor Cuomo issued Executive Order 203, whereby the Village of Scarsdale was mandated to perform a comprehensive review of current police force deployments, strategies, policies, procedures, and practices, and develop a plan to improve, where possible, particularly with respect to the intersection of policing, public trust and confidence in law enforcement, and potential racial bias in the treatment of persons of color.
The Police Reform and Reinvention Committee recently completed its Draft Report, which was presented publicly during a Village Board work session held this past Tuesday. In brief, the report found that the Scarsdale Police Department is distinguished as the only nationally accredited police agency in Westchester County, and only one of a few in the State of New York. Despite its recognized status as a model agency, there is always room for improvement; recommendations highlighting such opportunities are prominently featured in the draft report, which is available online at scarsdale.com.
Last, but not least, I’ll also mention that our 2020 highlights included, of all things, a black bear making pop-up appearances throughout Scarsdale and neighboring communities.
In conclusion, we are now confronted with very real problems that have carried over from 2020 and may continue to be with us for some time to come.
Let’s all do our level-best to help one another, work collaboratively, and make the world a much better place in 2021 and beyond – the worst is behind us and we have a great deal to look forward to accomplishing.
We are all very fortunate to live in Scarsdale, a caring and supportive community. Please continue to help and exhibit the extraordinary kindness you have shown repeatedly throughout the pandemic. Please continue to reach out to your friends and neighbors, especially our seniors. We may be isolated, but we do not have to be alone.
Please also take time to recognize and appreciate the efforts of our Village staff. They have performed exceptionally under extreme conditions, having exhibited the mindset, flexibility, and commitment necessary to deliver – through the pandemic – critical governmental services, many of which go unknown to those not intimately familiar with our operations.
In closing, I want to once again thank Madelaine Eppenstein and the Scarsdale Forum for hosting this annual event. Additionally, I look forward to seeing and speaking with each of you in-person, as circumstances permit. I hear there’s a stunning new gathering place on Olmstead with a wonderful view of Library Pond – perhaps we’ll run into one another there.
Thank you and I invite any questions at this time.