After championing but failing to convince a majority of the town board to pass a resolution on the matter last February, Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner is revitalizing his effort to recommend that the state legislature allow the town board to modify the Hartsdale Public Parking District’s (HPPD) charter and eliminate the requirement that commissioners must own real property within the district.
The HPPD, which owns and operates six separate parking facilities, five of which are located in the vicinity of the Hartsdale train station, was chartered in April 1952 as a user-subsidized special district. Although the district is a distinct legal entity from the town, the town board appoints three volunteer commissioners on staggered three-year terms to govern the district’s operation. The charter requires that all three commissioners be residents within the town and own real property. Two of the three commissioners must reside within the parking district lines, allowing one to live anywhere within unincorporated Greenburgh.
Feiner has called the HPPD’s property ownership requirement “very offensive,” as it was “depriving so many people the ability of getting involved and having a voice in [an] important government body.”
This isn’t the first time Feiner has taken aim at removing the property ownership requirement. In 2010, the New York State Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit from Feiner, in which he argued that the HPPD needed to recognize Feiner’s handpicked commissioner who did not own real property within the district. Feiner petitioned that the ownership requirement was “an unconstitutional denial of equal protection against those who do not own real property in the district.”
Justice Gerald Loehr ruled that Feiner lacked standing in the case, but that if the court were to consider the constitutionality issue raised by Feiner in his petition, it would have upheld the law requiring parking district board members to own real property in the town. The decision stated that a distinction between property owners could be made without violating the equal protection clause of the State Constitution for limited use districts.
HPPD commissioners are required to own real property in the district because if the district were to default on its bond payments, property owners in the district would be responsible.
Though he acknowledged the previous litigation and the reasoning behind why commissioners are required to own property, Councilman Ken Jones, who serves as liaison to the HPPD, told the Inquirer he was “skeptical of any laws involving property rights established in Westchester during the Jim Crow era.”
“The only position that [requires] a property owner is Hartsdale parking commissioner and I really think the last time that happened anywhere in the country, besides Hartsdale, was probably before the Civil War,” said Feiner. “I just feel that it’s total discrimination.”
In a letter sent to the town board prior to its Jan. 13 meeting, Seth Mandelbaum, a lawyer who represents the HPPD, wrote that the property ownership requirement was not based on racism, nor is it meant to disenfranchise voters, but to ensure liability for the bonds held by the parking district. Councilman Francis Sheehan also pointed out the reasoning behind the property ownership requirement during a Dec. 8 work session.
Feiner told the Inquirer he disagreed with the explanation that the property ownership requirement existed because property owners were responsible for the district’s bonds if they were to default.
“I want to get results and I feel that if I’m not going to get everything that I’d like, I’m happy getting little things [one] at a time. I feel that if we can [remove] the property ownership [requirement], I think that’s a positive step,” said Feiner.
In February 2020 when Feiner introduced a resolution calling for state officials to initiate a law — pursuant to a subsequent home rule law request — to expand the number of commissioners on the HPPD to a maximum of seven and to remove the property ownership requirement, the resolution failed by a vote of 2-3 and was eventually held over indefinitely while COVID-19 infections spread rapidly throughout New York.
As previously reported [“Feiner considers eliminating Hartsdale Public Parking District,” March 6, 2020], according to documents obtained by the Inquirer, Feiner contacted the commissioners at the HPPD in December 2019 to obtain answers regarding the ramifications of Edgemont incorporation on the parking district. Prior to the publication of the article, no one on the town board had mentioned Edgemont’s incorporation as a factor in the decision to push the state legislature to introduce a law to change the charter.
Feiner previously told the Inquirer that incorporation was one of many reasons that he felt the board should change.
“Another option is to just eliminate the district … and have the town handle it,” said Feiner in March 2020. “I don’t feel that there’s a need for the Hartsdale Parking District.”
In a response posted on the social media site Nextdoor in March, Feiner said there was “nothing clandestine” in his actions and he wanted to ensure the HPPD would prioritize unincorporated residents.
According to Mandelbaum, the town board could only dissolve the parking district after holding a public hearing where several conditions had to be met: three years had elapsed since the district was created, no improvements were constructed or service provided for the district since its establishment and there was no indebtedness, outstanding and unpaid, incurred to accomplish any of the purposes of the district.
“It is clear that the HPPD can only be dissolved or discontinued by a special act of the New York State legislature,” wrote Mandelbaum.
Feiner told the Inquirer he still doesn’t believe the town needs a parking district, but that he is not making a major effort to eliminate the district this year because he doesn’t think he will get a majority of the board to support that effort.
If the board isn’t receptive to taking control of the parking district, Feiner said he wants to take incremental steps to “make things better,” such as enlarging the board and eliminating the property ownership requirement.
Town Attorney Tim Lewis said he hasn’t been instructed to create a resolution or fill out paperwork for a home rule request since the town board meeting on Jan. 13.
In a letter to the town board submitted Jan. 12, the HPPD’s commissioners reiterated their opposition to Feiner’s push to include nonlandowners on the board and to expand the number of commissioners. Jones told the Inquirer he hasn’t heard a convincing argument to expand the board beyond three commissioners.
Feiner has also refused to move forward in reappointing Barbara Groden to her commissioner position as chairperson for the HPPD, a role she’s held since 2001. Since her term expired in December 2019, she’s been a holdover on the board and hasn’t heard from the town board about her reappointment. Jones said he supports Groden’s reappointment but that he is “only one vote of five.”
Feiner doesn’t support Groden’s reappointment and said he would rather have a commuter represented on the board.
“If they enlarge the board to … five people and you have one tenant or one nonproperty owner or two; it’s not something the parking district should be afraid of,” said Feiner. “If they enlarge the board, I would probably have no objections to Barbara Groden serving.”
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused a major decrease in commuting, has also hit the HPPD’s bottom line. The district’s 2021 budget is projecting a negative net income of $768,000. Total income for the parking district is also projected to drop from $1.8 million in 2020 to $744,000 in 2021.
Groden told the Inquirer the district planned to publish a 2020 audit at the end of February and couldn’t comment on the shortfall projections in the 2021 budget as the board was still working through how to fill the gap.
In a letter to the town board, the HPPD said that while the district had experienced reductions in revenue and operating income due to the COVID-19 pandemic and decreased Metro-North ridership, the district continued to operate the parking facilities “in a fiscally sound manner” and had “sufficient reserves and income” to run the facilities, make repairs and meet financial obligations.
When asked why the town should take over the parking district, especially during COVID-19, which has decimated parking lot revenues, Feiner said the town’s management of the parking district would allow the town to “control future planning better.”
“We wouldn’t have to deal with another entity,” he said. “We could have a comprehensive economic development plan without having to deal with another government body.”