Standing in the shade to avoid the hot June sun in the parking lot of the Theodore D. Young Community Center, town officials, volunteers, religious leaders and politicians stood by, ready to discuss a longstanding topic among unincorporated residents: the potential ramifications of Edgemont’s incorporation.
“We need to make our village law fair,” said Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti standing behind a podium with town of Greenburgh’s logo taped to the front as cars circled around to try and find parking for the community center. “The state’s law on incorporating villages is not fair. Our goal is to make it fair for everyone.”
The press conference on June 5, which was organized by Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner and included Abinanti and other members of the town board, sought to spread public awareness of Edgemont’s incorporation efforts and of a bill working its way through committee in the New York State Assembly, which is seeking to amend the state’s village law to include the state comptroller in the incorporation process and require petitioners to submit a financial impact statement instead of a list of regular inhabitants. The financial impact statement would include, among other things, a five-year estimation on the property tax impact incorporation would have on the territory to be incorporated and the remaining area of the town.
On June 7, the bill was amended, increasing the population requirement for an area to be incorporated to 10,000 residents, making it impossible for Edgemont to incorporate if passed.
As of June 9, the bill was still in committee but as of June 10, it was not even on to the Assembly calendar when the state’s legislative session end.
Though Edgemont has been attempting to incorporate intermittently for decades, the most recent effort has been five years in the making with two petitions shot down in the courts.
Members of the Edgemont Incorporation Committee (EIC) have already started work on a third petition to hold a referendum to decide whether or not the hamlet should become Greenburgh’s seventh village. But as the New York State Legislature winds down its calendar year, bills looking to change the state’s village law which dictates how areas can legally incorporate could change the course of the EIC’s efforts.
Those who oppose incorporation have been reinvigorated by these bills, spurred on specifically by S1657B and A2553B, which have worked in tandem in their language to try and dramatically change New York State village law.
Town officials, such as Feiner who has expressed his opposition to incorporation and has denied two EIC petitions to hold a referendum, jumped at the chance of supporting the bills.
“The major concern that I have is that if one wealthy hamlet breaks away from the town, others will follow,” said Feiner, a 30-year incumbent who is facing challenger Tasha Young in the Democratic primary June 22. “Eventually, Fairview will be its own village … [and] will not have the ability to support the [Theodore D. Young] community center and many other social programs.”
Introduced in January, Assembly Bill 2553 and Senate Bill 1657 both seek to change the state’s village law by replacing the list of regular inhabitants with a financial impact statement, which would include the proposed village’s operating budget, capital budget, services provided and a five-year estimated property tax impact on both the newly incorporated village and the remaining unincorporated area.
The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. James Skoufis, who previously introduced bills targeting village incorporation law.
Though there are other proposed amendments to the law in both bills, the main change to the law is in section 2-211, which seeks to involve the state comptroller in the incorporation process by examining the petitioner’s financial impact statement.
Unlike the current law, which requires the town supervisor to make the final determination on whether or not an incorporation petition is legally sufficient, the proposed bills called for the state comptroller to make the final determination.
In contrast to arguments he has made against adding layers of government, Feiner told the Inquirer he supports adding the comptroller’s decision-making power into the incorporation process. He said he didn’t think including the comptroller in the process adds a new layer of government; rather, it adds an independent elected official to analyze an incorporation’s potential financial impact.
“I think that right now people are basing their decision on rhetoric,” said Feiner. “When you’re dealing with something as important as Edgemont incorporation, people really need to know what the real implications are, both to Edgemont and unincorporated Greenburgh.”
At a town board work session on June 1, Feiner and the entire town board supported the bill that was in the Assembly and agreed to lobby Abinanti and Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins to support the bill in the Senate.
Though a supporter of the bill, Abinanti has not co-sponsored it. Stewart-Cousins’ office did not provide a comment by press time on whether or not she supported the bill.
A day after the town board pledged its support for Assembly Bill A2553, the Ways and Means Committee amended and recommitted the bill, stripping away the part that would have empowered the state comptroller to decide whether or not an incorporation petition was legally sufficient. It also therefore removed language outlining what the comptroller’s decision should be based upon, whether incorporation would benefit the overall public interest and whether the cost of creating a village would pose an undue burden on the newly incorporated area or on the remainder of the town.
In response to the amendments, Feiner released a Change.org petition through the town’s email listserv, asking residents to sign on to an effort to convince the state’s legislative delegation to change the bill and include language that would allow the entire town to vote on an incorporation petition, rather than just the area to be incorporated.
As of June 10, the online petition had 703 signatures.
“I cannot tell you how it was accomplished, or who intervened in this process, but I believe that we should redouble our efforts to lobby our elected officials, displaying a level of outrage proportionate to the actions of those involved,” Feiner wrote in a press release issued June 3.
Feiner told the Inquirer he didn’t’ know whether or not the EIC was involved in the changes to the bill, but said that the group’s lobbyist in the legislature could have taken part.
EIC President Jeff Sherwin told the Inquirer the group did not suggest or lobby for the changes to the Assembly bill.
According to the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the EIC hired lobbyist Kenneth Riddett from Riddett Associates Inc. for a one-time payment of $2,500 to lobby against state bills A2553 and S1657 from June 2 to June 11. The changes that removed the state comptroller’s decision-making power didn’t occur until June 2 in Assembly Bill A2553B and June 3 in Senate Bill S1657B.
Sherwin said the EIC didn’t support “adding any additional hurdles to the fundamental right to vote” and took issue with having the comptroller review financial impact statements since it also meant the statements would be incumbent upon whether or not the town would enter into shared services contracts with a potential village of Edgemont.
“We have been asking for years for the town to provide us with basic cost-of-service information so that we could demonstrate why incorporation would not harm Greenburgh in the way the town claims, but they won’t provide it,” said Sherwin.
Feiner has been hesitant to share any contractual financial information with Edgemont incorporation proponents, but said, if the bill passed, he would meet with the EIC to discuss the situation.
“If the legislation passed and the comptroller is basically involved, I think it would be really important for the town to do our own analysis and sit down with [the EIC] and see if we could figure out the … ramifications,” said Feiner.
Hugh Schwartz, an Edgemont resident and a critic of incorporation, said at the press conference that because the bill didn’t require the entire town to vote on an incorporation petition, he didn’t understand why members of the EIC would be opposed to it “unless they were hiding something financially.”
Sherwin told the Inquirer the EIC had been “completely transparent with the community” about the organization’s financial figures and that all information was published on the group’s website.
“We have met personally with hundreds of community members who have specific questions about any of the financials, including Hugh himself,” said Sherwin.
In January 2017, the EIC retained Zion Public Finance and the Novak Consulting Group to develop a comprehensive report on the viability of a village of Edgemont. The result was a 69-page incorporation feasibility study, which outlined the financial information and services that could be provided to the potential village. The study includes multiple avenues for services, including the possibility of sharing current services such as police and sanitation.
Sherwin said the EIC is planning to do an updated financial review soon.
At the press conference, members of the town board spoke out against incorporation, focusing stringently on “fairness.”
“Why should the will of the few get to control the majority?” said Councilman Ken Jones, arguing that a few thousand Edgemont residents shouldn’t be allowed to decide something that also affects the town’s approximately 40,000 unincorporated residents.
Similarly, Councilman Francis Sheehan said it was time for the people in the unincorporated area to have a say in incorporation.
Though not included in either bill, Abinanti said during the press conference that he supported allowing everyone in the unincorporated area to vote on incorporation, adding that it was “very dangerous to say that you’re going to form a village solely for the purposes of self-interest.”
Arguing that the point of incorporation is to act as a check on town governmental power and that people would vote for or against incorporation for multiple different reasons, Sherwin told the Inquirer that no area of the town should be able to have a veto power on any other area’s ability to vote on whether or not to become a village.
After the press conference, Young, the Democratic candidate challenging Feiner in the June 22 primary, said in a speech that although she is against incorporation and wants to keep the town whole, she understood why Edgemont wanted to incorporate. Referencing the recent $9.5 million Dromore lawsuit settlement, Young said Edgemont wanted better government and management.
“We don’t see anyone petitioning to force the six existing villages in Greenburgh to dissolve, or criticizing those villages for remaining incorporated rather than dissolving into unincorporated Greenburgh,” said Sherwin. “We don’t see anyone claiming that the entire town should get to vote on whether, say, Ardsley or Dobbs Ferry get to remain villages. All we want is the same opportunity they had.”