How Local Government Impacts Enjoyment of Our Homes

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By Bill Primavera

It is always surprising to me when I meet people who tell me that they have no interest in local politics or voting.

Statistics would prove that they are in the majority. In my town, for instance, slightly less than one-third of all qualified voters actually turn out to cast their ballots for local elections.

I must confess that when my wife and I moved to Westchester, we were quite naïve about the impact that local government has on home ownership. Since that time, however, I have learned that town government can deeply affect how we enjoy our homes and neighborhoods. And I’ve learned it issue by issue, problem by problem, side by side with the good things our elected officials, department heads and committee volunteers strive to accomplish.

Now politically involved myself on a volunteer basis, I must say that I tip my hat to those brave souls who battle to be elected and to govern, many times dealing with the most contentious issues, as well as to those who volunteer their time and expertise to make our communities better places to live.

There are so many complicated questions to be managed on a local level. Property taxes. Road maintenance. Garbage pick-up. Public safety. Protecting our drinking water. Parks and recreational facilities. Are we hemmed in by restrictive codes, or are they too loose? Do we have a healthy business environment, properly balanced with the suburban lifestyle we all sought by coming to this region?

And what happens when we want to design and construct an addition or a deck? Is the town easy or difficult to navigate in obtaining approvals? 

Some of us, perhaps most of us, get involved with town government only when an occurrence affects us personally or just makes us plain angry, while others are involved with the political process from the start.

It might take only one event, small or cataclysmic, that sends a person into the fray of political activism. It can be something as astounding as 9/11, which sent many on a mission to determine whether Indian Point was safe in our midst, to the simple quest of wanting to remove a large tree from one’s property.

The structure of local government may vary somewhat, but most are run by a supervisor or mayor, sometimes assisted by a manager and supported by a common council or board.

In my town, the supervisor is elected to a two-year term and the board members, every four years, on a staggered basis, currently with no term limits. There are many departments involved in local government: planning, building, engineering and sewer, highway, parks and recreation, the clerk’s office, the assessor’s office, police, comptroller, tax receiver, water, senior housing and services, town attorney and courts, library and, sometimes, a museum.

At the same time, there are many volunteer committees and boards whose expertise and interests are focused on supporting town departments, such as planning, zoning, environment, traffic, architecture review, open space, conservation, ethics, senior services, landmarks and, occasionally, a museum committee, among others. There are also clubs which enhance community living, like garden clubs that plant around town in the spring.

Some voluntary boards carry more weight than others. I happen to serve on my town’s Architectural Review Board, and sometimes a disgruntled applicant whose plan has not been received favorably might say, “You have no power.” In a sense it’s true. We serve only in an advisory capacity, while approval is required from similar committees in nearby towns in order for a project to move forward.

A common complaint is that the process for approval takes too long in some towns, particularly with such issues as zoning. But towns have responded to this criticism by saying that they must exercise due diligence, especially when factoring in the environmental impact of larger projects.

The most common complaint we hear in Westchester and Putnam counties is that we pay too much in taxes. There is a rush to assign blame to local governments. While our elected officials remind us that it is our school systems and not the towns that take the greatest bite out of our tax bill, the towns nonetheless must take the abuse since it collects taxes on the schools’ behalf.

A town’s character can depend on the personal style of those citizens who put themselves forward to serve, either through election or volunteerism. And, of course, individual personalities and frailties come into play, which can make any local issue even more interesting.

When I first moved to Yorktown a half-century ago, I was very impressed with one of the town’s most beloved citizens, an owner of large commercial properties named Grace Roma (there’s the Roma Building downtown). She was at Town Board meetings and work sessions every week without fail. She once told me that she’d much rather be there than at a stage play “because the drama in town beats anything on Broadway!” 

Grace had a point, a good one.

Bill Primavera is a realtor associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.

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