A look back over the news stories of 2018 reveals a rather tumultuous year at both the national and local levels.
It is certain 2018 will be marked with distinction in the history books. Increased storms and poor response by utilities highlighted inherent weaknesses in established energy protocols. Public policy actions taken by the Administration in Washington, DC, were followed by emotional national and local protests. Worldwide economic uncertainty caused budget woes. Mail theft at the Post Office combined with delivery delays and losses caused residents financial and medical pain as deliveries became uncertain. The ongoing push to “build” more and higher buildings, while others remained vacant, brought many residents to a boiling point.
These are just some of the issues that brought people out in droves to voice their concerns in the streets, at private and public meetings locally and to the ballot box as the year closed.
What followed in White Plains and Westchester County was a change in government policy-making. Some of those changes had already been put into motion with the 2017 elections, but as 2018 closed and 2019 opened, a new wave of local political activism was on the rise.
The uncertainty of early 2018 is giving way to a more organized approach to handling the rising pressures on our society in a quickly changing time. If this response to change continues on track, the outlook for 2019 and beyond is hopeful.
Nita Lowey, Andrea Stewart-Cousins Achieve Historical Firsts in 2019
Two women living in and serving the local community have achieved historical firsts as government representatives.
Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-Harrison), serving NY Congressional District 17, has been elected by the Democratic Caucus to serve as Chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee in the 116th Congress, beginning January 2019.
Lowey will be the first woman in history to chair the House Appropriations Committee.
In this position Lowey will be able to work with authority to help pass federal spending bills that will affect Westchester residents, New Yorkers and all Americans.
Right out of the box, she will be challenged with the ongoing federal government shutdown.
NY state Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) is set to make New York history as the first woman to lead the state senate after a vote by the Democratic Conference secured her position as Senate Majority Leader, beginning in January 2019.
Representing District 35, Stewart-Cousins was first elected to the State Senate in 2006 and currently represents Greenburgh, part of White Plains, part of New Rochelle, part of Yonkers and Scarsdale. She has served as state Senate Minority Leader since 2012.
Stewart-Cousins takes the reigns as Democrats took over the New York Senate for the first time in decades after several seats turned during the November 2018 election.
Westchester Responds to Increased Gun Violence, Hate Crimes
In February 2018, the United States was rocked when 17 people were gunned down at a Florida high school. Several hundred Westchester residents demonstrated in White Plains demanding that gun control legislation be enacted.
Members of Indivisible Westchester, Moms Demand Action, Northern Westchester Million Mom March and other groups spilled out onto Mamaroneck Avenue vowing to defeat candidates and elected officials who oppose common sense measures to limit the proliferation of firearms. The anger in the crowd was palpable just four days after students and staff members were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. There were dozens of people holding signs as the crowd chanted numerous slogans such as, “We need more than thoughts and prayers” and “We will resist, we will persist.”
Just the month before, in January, newly elected County Executive George Latimer had signed an executive order banning gun shows from being held on county-owned property.
Despite a record-breaking turnout at the 2017 knife and firearm show at the County Center in White Plains, Latimer cited a national rise in gun violence, stating that he doesn’t want gun culture glorified on county property.
A few weeks later, the County Board of Legislators approved a law banning gun shows from being held on county-owned property. Following intense debate, the votes, 12-5, were cast along strict party lines.
The mass shooting in Parkland was a grim reminder that despite numerous extra security that was put in place following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut more than five years ago local school personnel and authorities must always be vigilant.
Little more than a week after the Parkland incident, the White Plains City School District (WPCSD) became aware of allegations posted on the Internet by a WPCSD student, which included threats of violence in school. According to a message sent to parents and educators School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Ricca, said the matter was immediately referred to the White Plains Police Department (WPPD) and that the police had responded and taken control of the ongoing investigation and an arrest was made.
Similar incidents occurred at numerous schools in Westchester County and law enforcement took steps to make arrests, not allowing threats of violence to be taken casually or as just an adolescent prank.
The majority of students on Westchester’s campuses, however, both high schools and colleges, rose to sound their voices in protest of gun violence.
White Plains High School senior Kelly Marx, organized the White Plains March for Our Lives march and rally, which attracted about 9,000 people who marched through White Plains to a rally at the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in front of the Westchester County courthouse, where students delivered passionate speeches.
Marx urged the crowd to educate themselves on which state legislators support these measures. “I am tired and scared and I’ve had enough,” Marx said.
Many in the crowd who attended said they came not only because they want to see tighter gun legislation but to stand with the students who have been a source of inspiration.
As the debate about gun control waged on, attacks on immigrants, many believed were encouraged by the Trump Administration’s tough stand on immigration, began to escalate. Communities across the country took different actions in response.
In Westchester the BOL approved the Immigrant Protection Act (IPA), a bill that would restrain Westchester from using its resources for immigration enforcement.
Lawmakers voted 11-3 to support the measure, maintaining that immigrants would be provided the protection to keep them from living in fear of deportation.
Despite the legislative efforts, Westchester residents again found themselves compelled to take to the streets chanting as immigration policies that separate children from their migrant parents at the U.S. border became apparent.
Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, Leake & Watts in Yonkers and Lincoln Hall in Somers were among the four facilities reportedly housing children within Westchester. Latimer offered the county’s Department of Social Services to assist federal officials with reuniting children with their families. As this process was underway, it became clear that records had not been adequately kept to follow the separate paths of parents and their children to allow timely reunions, if at all.
As the immigrant policy debate continued, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that the number of anti-Semitic incidents, including physical assaults, vandalism, harassment and attacks on Jewish institutions in New York rose by over 90% in 2017 compared to 2016.
In Pittsburgh, the Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash Congregations suffered a gun attack during worship services. The Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center, based in White Plains, pledged to fight anti-Semitism and racial hatred by redoubling its efforts to educate youth, create upstanders and defend human rights.
As bomb threats and other acts of hate continued, in October 2018, the Westchester County Human Rights Commission (HRC) prepared a draft proposal on policies and procedures for the county government to respond to hate incidents.
As the year ended, a student at SUNY Purchase was arrested and charged with committing a hate crime for posting messages with images of Hitler and swastikas on school buildings during the Hanukkah holiday.
Examiner newspapers in the northern section of Westchester were defaced with similar signs, including “KKK,” when a lead story praised a Hispanic immigrant from the area for making her way to Congress during the last election.
SALT Deduction Cap Causes IRS Taxation Grievance
As the Trump Administration announced the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, local government representatives who studied the plan, soon recognized the harm the new federal tax laws would cause many New Yorkers, in particular those living in the Metropolitan suburbs.
The SALT (state and local tax) deduction had been a major source of tax fairness for high cost of living and high tax states such as New York.
In Westchester, 45% of residents depend on the SALT deduction at an average of $25,000 annually, making the new $10,000 cap for local and state taxes and income tax an unfair burden.
New York lawmakers got together with tax attorneys and academics from around the country to study the new law and came up with a plan to allow residents to make charitable contributions to certain municipal agencies that would make up the difference and ultimately reduce their overall tax bill.
The IRS, however, thwarted the attempt by proposing changes to the charitable deductions section of the tax law.
The Coalition for the Charitable Contribution Deduction, spearheaded by Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale), is comprised of close to three-dozen Westchester municipalities and school districts, including the City of White Plains and White Plains Schools.
The group submitted a letter to the IRS requesting the proposed regulations, which would deny a full charitable deduction for donations to the charitable funds be withdrawn.
Paulin said the new regulations break IRS precedent and undermine the effectiveness of the new charitable fund established.
If the proposed regulations become final, the coalition, which is currently working with a law firm, is threatening to file a federal lawsuit.
Progress in Mail Service Quality, But Some Problems Persist
The severe drop in the quality of mail service over the past year in Westchester County has been mirrored in communities across the nation. In many cases the problem has not been merely a lack of service, but outright criminal activity as mail is stolen from post boxes and some postal service employees have been implicated.
Customers have been advised to use online banking rather than sending written checks through the mail and to bring their outgoing mail directly to the post office rather than dropping it into an outside box.
Local leaders have been in contact with Post Office officials but the problems continue.
In August, Congresswoman Lowey penned a letter addressing concern by union officials that mail carriers in the Westchester Postal District were told to come in up to 90 minutes later because of problems at the Westchester Processing and Distribution Center.
“It has been suggested to me that the distribution problems relate to staffing issues because, although the Postal Service is recruiting carriers, it is losing as many as 50 percent of new hires because of working conditions. These include 12-hour days, 16 to 19 days without days off, and a shifting of routes that require carriers to cover areas far from their homes, often with little notice,” Lowey said in the letter.
She also requested that customers be informed by the USPS of any known thefts so they can monitor their bank accounts and take additional steps to verify that mail they have posted has been received.
Utilities Under Fire for Poor Response to Winter Storm Damage
In early March 2018, County Executive George Latimer declared a state of emergency as communities throughout Westchester were left reeling with blocked roads and thousands without power following the powerful Nor’easter, Storm Riley that had hit the area three days before.
The cause for the state of emergency was the inability of Consolidated Edison and New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG) to bring service back up to normal levels quickly enough with another storm bearing down on the area within days.
Officials later called for investigations by the Public Service Commission (PSC) related to the preparation for the Nor’easter and following snowstorm.
Latimer accused the utilities of having been “missing in action,” for failing to arrange for adequate mutual aid from out of state and for inept communication with the public and officials afterward. He called for the resignations of the utilities executives.
As the winter storm season for 2019 approaches, new procedures have been put into place to avoid a recurrence of the 2018 event.
A surprise snowstorm in October 2018, had some residents up in arms about the county’s ability to clean up during rush hour traffic, but that weather event was noting compared with the earlier storms.
WP Development Projects Continue, Some Stalled by Ongoing Debate
The ongoing debate about the development of the former Ridgeway Country Club into a regional school, the French American School of New York (FASNY), continued through 2018 with back and forth court battles.
In August, State Supreme Court Judge Joan Lefkowitz presented her decision to reject two separate legal challenges to the City of White Plains Common Council’s grant of Special Permit and Site Plan approval for the FASNY application for a reduced School on 27 acres of the 129-acre property.
The Gedney Association countered by filing a Notice of Appeal with hopes of reversing the decision.
In a September statement, the Association said it believes clear requirements of the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) were neglected.
The Gedney Association is also appealing the Judge’s dismissal of its lawsuit seeking enforcement of the private Deed Restriction prohibiting Institutional Use on the property.
2019 should bring another court decision.
Another hotly contested development project on a vast open space on the outskirts of the White Plains downtown is 52 N. Broadway. It is the site for the former Good Counsel campus.
The property was given historic landmark status by the White Plains Historic Preservation Commission in 2018, but the new property owner wants to change the zoning to allow multi-use development and a residential unit density beyond the current allowable amount.
A plan, which focuses on preserving the expansive green space and front lawn views from North Broadway, keeps the Chapel of the Divine Compassion on the site as well as a few other existing buildings, and would put a large multi-family apartment structure to the back of the property.
Residents in the surrounding neighborhoods came out to public hearings held during the summer of 2018 to object to the plan. They requested a study of a toxic dump site on the former campus athletic field be done and suggested the development of the site be held to single-family residences constructed throughout the site, eliminating open space, but keeping with existing zoning requirements.
The city of White Plains commissioned its own independent survey of the toxic landfill and has postponed continuation of the public hearings until the report is in.
The discussion will resume in early 2019.
Several other residential development projects for the White Plains downtown and surrounding area are on the books for 2019 construction.