Local leaders host ‘coffee & conversation’ at Ruth Keeler Memorial Library
North Salem Town Supervisor Warren Lucas, along with New York State Assemblymember Chris Burdick, New York State Senator Pete Harckham and Westchester County Legislator Erika Pierce hosted an informal conversation with community members Saturday afternoon at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem. The event was an opportunity for locals to hear from and speak directly to their elected officials.
Supervisor Lucas opened up the meeting by thanking attendees for coming and expressed a happy surprise at the turnout. The main meeting room was filled to near capacity, with most attendees seated and at least a dozen more standing near the back.
Lucas was the lone Republican of the four elected officials. However, he noted that as a group, their working relationship is one of mutual respect and collaboration. “We may not agree on everything but we’re cordial and we work on everything together,” Lucas said. Legislator Pierce added, “every single representative you have here is committed to serving you.”
After a few minutes of opening remarks, the representatives opened the floor for comments and questions.
Two community members, each wearing large “No.” badges, spoke about their strong resistance to a proposed state law that would require the COVID-19 vaccine for school children. Harckham responded that he was not a co-sponsor of the bill and added that he previously broke with his party on a similar issue (in 2019, Senate Bill S2994 repealed all non-medical exemptions from vaccination requirements for children. Harckham voted against the bill). Burdick added that he, too, has not co-sponsored any bills mandating vaccines. “I’m not interested in telling people you must get a shot,” he said.
Peach Lake resident Susanna Glidden shared her concerns about the effects of climate change on Peach Lake. Glidden noted an increase in flooding along lakefront property and homes in Pietsch Gardens and asked whether state grants could help. Lucas acknowledged the problems plaguing the lake but noted the limitations of government funding and added that portions of the lake lie within the boundaries of the Town of Southeast. A culvert replacement project, which would ease drainage problems, is projected to cost $1.5 million dollars and would need to be funded through Southeast’s town budget.
“When it comes to NYSE&G, our office has been like a dog on a pant leg."
Community member Ed McDowell shared his desire for more reliable electric service. “I’d like to have an assurance by state and local governments that this program of keeping an eye on utilities is going to remain and stay in place,” he said. All four leaders voiced their frustrations about dealing with NYSE&G over the years, while conceding that the utility has made incremental improvements in recent years.
“When it comes to NYSE&G, our office has been like a dog on a pant leg,” Pierce said. “We have been in contact with the Public Utility Law Project. We have sent letters. They are claiming that positive changes are coming. Everyone here is committed, to the best of our ability, to making sure those are going to happen.” Pierce added that residents can do their part by removing dead trees on their property. “Until folks start taking down ash trees and all other dead trees, those of us in this rural environment will keep seeing our power go out. We have to do better.”
“You are absolutely right about the horrible performance that Optum is delivering."
Another community member raised concerns about Optum, the UnitedHealth Group subsidiary which acquired CareMount Medical last July. “You are absolutely right about the horrible performance that Optum is delivering,” Burdick replied. “We have been getting quite a few complaints from constituents.” Burdick said he has plans to speak with Optum’s chief operating officer. “We are going to be very clear that there’s got to be an improvement in performance. The next step is to go to the New York State Department of Health, which regulates medical practices such as this.”
Mary Ehring-Maldonado, director of Camp Morty, a free residential camp for Westchester County children receiving social services, spoke out during the meeting. Camp Morty operates out of North Salem’s Mountain Lakes Park but traditionally has had little intersection with local residents. Ehring-Maldonado expressed her desire for that to change. “This year with our teenagers, we are looking to bring in local professionals to help them build skills,” she said, adding that she encourages residents to reach out to learn more about how they can help support the camp’s mission.
Perhaps the most significant back-and-forth of the session was between Edward Doyle, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Westchester and Putnam Counties, and Warren Lucas. While Harckham expressed his strong support for unions, saying, “public money should go to our union workforce; that’s what built the middle class in New York State for decades,” Lucas expressed considerable frustration at having to use public funds to pay union wages for projects that he felt unworthy of union labor, such as painting. Lucas’ comments came after deputy supervisor Peter Kamenstein, asking as a taxpayer, inquired whether union leaders take into consideration how prevailing wage rates (the pay rate set by law for work on public work projects) affect town taxpayers. Lucas took the opportunity to share his opinion.
“Prevailing wage, in some situations, is terrible. $120 per hour, which is what we have to pay to have something painted, it gets absurd,” Lucas said, noting the union rates the Town of North Salem had been quoted to paint rooms within the property at 3 Owens Road, which the town purchased last year.
Doyle pushed back, making the case for the larger value that union members bring to communities. “I don’t know what it’s like to suffer; the union has provided for my family. These are the elements of making a community work. The people working on those projects are the people in your community. They’re the people who spend the money in your community. They ensure you use local labor and then they go on to pay taxes.”
Doyle and Lucas continued to go back and forth for a few minutes. Doyle continued to stress the benefits of unions. Lucas, still focused on the rates for painting and visibly frustrated, said “this is not one of the good things I want to talk about.” Burdick stepped in, saying, “this is one in which people who have good thoughts, good intentions, can have different views, which I respect.
ADUs and TOD
The conversation closed the way it began, with the officials commenting on the state’s proposed legislation around accessory dwelling units and transit-oriented development. Both measures are intended to provide more affordable housing throughout the state, though there are significant disagreements on how best to achieve that aim. Burdick said, “I am totally in favor of building more affordable housing, but doing it with a carrot rather than a stick.”
Lucas pointed to enlarged town maps that are on display at the library. “The problem I have is the state saying, ‘this is how you will zone.’ Home rule law says municipalities have control over their zoning. My issue isn’t with ADU legislation, it’s with local zoning.”