At their September 16 meeting on Wednesday night, the Mamaroneck Town Board raised the rates for water and got the latest details from Westchester County Legislator Judy Myers on a proposed settlement to a federal lawsuit over discrimination on affordable housing.
Water Rates Rising
The board unanimously approved a 9% increase in water rates as requested by Tony Coneta, manager of the Westchester Joint Water Works (WJWW). The new rate, retroactive to September 1, 2009, will hike bills approximately $3.70 per month on average for residents in the Town of Mamaroneck and in District 42, an adjacent portion of New Rochelle serviced by the Town. This rate does not apply to residents of Larchmont Village.
Although WJWW already boosted rates 3.5% for 2009, Mr. Coneta cited a number of factors to justify his latest request, including increases for purchasing water from New York City (60% of the budget) and for utilities, chemicals, and maintenance. He noted the Town uses 11% of the total available water at a cost 20 to 30% cheaper than if purchased from a private water company, a bargain compared to monthly phone and internet bills.
Town Administrator Steve Altieri explained that the WJWW budget includes operation of both the water works and the overall water district, with responsibility for major water projects, fire hydrants, and a portion of liability insurance.
WJWW will be making suggestions for the 2010 budget shortly.
While it was “painful” for Councilmember Nancy Seligson to approve a rate increase at this time, she said the cost of water in Mamaroneck is relatively cheap.
Ms. Myers reviewed the proposed settlement between Westchester and the federal government regarding charges that the County violated anti-discrimination requirements when applying federal funds for affordable housing. (See: Will Westchester Housing Lawsuit Hit Larchmont? and also Larchmont Learns of County Affordable Housing Suit Settlement. ) If the settlement is approved by the County legislature, Westchester would be required to develop at least 750 housing units, with the majority in communities like Mamaroneck Town and Larchmont Village that have few minority residents.
Overcoming zoning barriers at the local municipal level, noted Ms. Myers, was cited as a major problem by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, the original party to the lawsuit that was later replaced by U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development. Westchester might be required to pursue legal action against localities, if zoning issues cannot be resolved.
The number of new affordable units that must be built in each community has yet to be determined. It was unclear, even after some discussion on Wednesday night, whether the affordable units proposed by Forest City Daly for their Madison Avenue apartments would qualify as part of any quota. However, Ms. Myers said existing buildings could be purchased and rehabilitated by the municipality to satisfy requirements of the settlement.
Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe expressed considerable concern over the settlement’s fairness and effectiveness. If the “sin was not taking into consideration race” in making decisions on affordable housing, the “penance does not solve the problem that was addressed,” she said. The settlement requires advertising availability for new affordable units more broadly, but the final selection will be made by lottery, so minority applicants may not get picked.
The settlement parties “are saying that because there are not enough Hispanics or blacks on my block (or someone else’s) its de facto segregation,” she said. “I don’t believe this. If people have the money, they can go anywhere in Westchester County to buy a house. I think it’s economics.”
The supervisor concluded by stating how unhappy she is – as a lawyer and a public servant – to “have teeny errors turn into something so unfair. Tthey] shouldn’t be hitting people over their heads when they are trying to do the right thing.”
Ms. Myers described her board’s dilemma: they are being asked to put the horse before the cart. They must approve the settlement by September 25 to avoid a trial with risks of up to $200 million in fines, legal fees and foregone federal funding. Yet, the implementation plan won’t be submitted until December 8, so they don’t know if they can meet its requirements. They don’t know the penalties for failure.
Ms. Myers said she does not have a sense of what her board will decide.
Meanwhile, she has received many emails and phone calls from residents. She said the comments were not racist in tone, but many residents are worried about the availability of vacant land and the tax impacts of the settlement.
Also At the Board:
More Funds to Plan Memorial Park: despite misgivings by Councilmember Ernie Odierna over a potentially costly project in fragile economic times, the board voted to apply for a $50,000 grant to develop a comprehensive master plan for Memorial Park. Supervisor O’Keeffe said “passive recreation” is important and brings a community together. The apartment houses and homes on small lots near the park will benefit from any improvements. If Mamaroneck gets the grant, to be awarded in early 2010, the Town must match the funds in cash or “sweat equity.” Councilmember Phyllis Wittner said there will also be a fund raising project for the area.
More Costs to Haul Leaves: The board unanimously approved a five year agreement with Westchester County for leaf disposal, at a slightly increased cost of $15 per ton (up $1.50), to cover rising transportation costs. The unincorporated part of Mamaroneck and the Village of Larchmont produce approximately 4500 tons of leaves annually that are hauled away.
More for Senior Meals: The board unanimously approved an additional $4500 in funding for the senior nutrition program made available from the County through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus program).
More Access to Work Sessions: A request by a Town resident for the televising of board work sessions will be reviewed at the next meeting.