YORKTOWN, N.Y. - In his first ever State of the Town address, Supervisor Michael Grace painted a bright and ambitious picture for Yorktown, one that seemingly divided the standing-room only audience at town hall last Thursday, March 2.
Following his 90-minute presentation, in which he lauded the town’s officials, department heads and their accomplishments over the last five years, an impromptu political debate broke out as Grace fielded questions from both supporters and critics. A fiery opening to the Q&A session, sparked by a comparison of Grace to President Trump, drew jeers and a shout of “get out of here with that communist kind of stuff!”
“Why are you interested in putting in regulations or laws that make businesses more profitable, but not things that will help the environment and people in town?” asked resident Maura Gregory, referencing the board’s recent amendments to the tree ordinance, affordable housing law and proposed changes to the wetlands ordinance. Gregory, whose husband, Melvyn Tanzman, is seeking the Democratic nomination for supervisor, called Grace’s presentation “Trump-like.”
Grace, who said he was “flattered” by Gregory’s comparison, said the majority of the town board agreed that those laws were outdated and ineffectual, which is why they were amended. He also said business should not be viewed as an “enemy,” but rather as a neighbor who contributes to the community.
In an attempt to calm the tension, Deputy Supervisor Gregory Bernard interjected and asked the residents to show respect to the supervisor.
“Campaign season is kicking off right now, so we have people here that are going to try and instigate and throw out these accusations, if you will,” Bernard said. “So let’s all try to bring it down a little bit. We’re not at a Trump rally. We’re here in the town of Yorktown and we can all be civil.”
Tanzman, seated front row, said Bernard’s statement was only provoking more outrage.
“You’re claiming that people are instigating, but they’re asking valid questions,” he said. Tanzman and several other audience members came prepared with a list of 18 questions critical of the supervisor and his administration, though only about a half-dozen questions were taken.
Grace’s address, accompanied by a 116-slide PowerPoint presentation, was broken down into six topics: quality of life, Yorktown on the move, improving government operations, improving infrastructure, new legislation and the town budget.
Grace said he is proud of what the town of Yorktown has accomplished since he took office in 2011, including the founding of annual events such as the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop, Holiday Electric Lights Parade and Feast of San Gennaro, and organizations such as the Yorktown Citizens Task Force Against Heroin and Yorktown Organizations United.
He then transitioned to new developments that are on the horizon, zeroing in on his “much ballyhooed” Depot Square project. The project, which has already received several state grants, involves the construction of a new Highway Department garage and new Parks and Recreation headquarters on town-owned property on Greenwood Street. The current Highway Department garage would then be demolished and the land sold to a private developer. Combining state grants with the sale of the property (which he “conservatively” estimates at $2 million), Grace said the project should cost nothing for local taxpayers.
“A promise was made to accomplish this downtown revitalization/highway department relocation project at little or no cost to Yorktown taxpayers, and we are on track this year to make good on that promise,” he said.
Grace also touted other approved or proposed projects such as the Pines Bridge Monument; the restoration of Railroad Park; the construction of 12 affordable housing units on Kear Street; the construction of Chase Bank on Commerce Street; the renovation of the Jefferson Valley Mall; the creation of Sylvan Glen Paw Park; The Weyant, a proposed 36-unit rental community on Crompond Road; Shrub Oak International School; athletic fields at Granite Knolls; the Staples Plaza renovation; and, of course, the new Lowe’s Home Center on Crompond Road.
Of all the new developments in the pipeline, Grace said he is most proud of JCM Racing, a custom engine-building shop proposed for Front Street.
“I am dying for this thing to happen,” Grace said. “It’s a small development, but it’s one of the most symbolic developments in town…It will be the first bit of construction on Front Street in over 30 years. Why? Because we finally got the sewer moratorium lifted. To cut the ribbon on this one is going to be absolutely so sweet.” Grace went on to criticize the state for holding up JCM for what he believes to be minor environmental concerns.
Grace said his administration has also improved the efficiency of government by beginning the process of digitizing town records; a restructured engineering department; the creation of an Emergency Operations Center; new generators for the police department and the Yorktown Community Cultural Center; and new government trucks and cars.
New laws the town board approved or amended include the new littering law, where people can be fined if they are caught on camera littering; the 485-B Law, a tax break for businesses; and a textile recovery program.
Grace also defended his town budgets, which are often criticized for using too much surplus (fund balance) to balance the budget. Critics say revenue is not rising at the same pace as expenditures, and covering the gap by using too much surplus instead of raising property taxes will come back to bite Yorktown when the surplus dries up. Grace said, contrary to popular opinion, the surplus has continued to increase under his watch and Yorktown is in good shape financially going forward.
“In these trying times, when everybody seems to want to be at everybody else’s throat for the littlest thing, let us all remember we are still one town with a shared purpose,” he said. “Together, with constructive dialogue, we should have confidence that we can turn all our hopes for a prosperous, thriving town into a reality.”
Following the presentation and a five-minute break, Grace returned to field questions from the audience.
One resident criticized Grace’s administration for being reactive rather than proactive in repairing infrastructure; another criticized the town for considering Shrub Oak International School’s application despite its parent company, K3 Learning Inc., settling a $4.3 million dispute with New York State over the misappropriation of state funds, according to a report in The New York Times; and another resident said the town board should have microphones turned on at its work sessions. Grace disagreed with all three suggestions. Another resident was also critical of the condition of Yorktown’s roads. Highway Superintendent Dave Paganelli said the town is working toward dedicating more funds for paving.
On the other side, Grace was commended by several residents and business leaders for his administration’s ability to promote Yorktown as a business-friendly community, which, they said, will help to ease the tax burden on homeowners.
The final two speakers of the night, both newcomers to Yorktown, wondered if the lack of decorum shown by feuding political parties is commonplace.
“I’m a new homeowner in Yorktown,” a woman said. “I have a young family, and I’m assuming you’re hoping to attract more new homeowners and young families to Yorktown. I would like to say that a little bit of respect, I think more than many of us have seen here in this room tonight, would go a long way to attracting a lot more and different people to Yorktown.”
Another resident added, “I went to the bathroom and I came back and it seemed like there was a little war going on in here. There was a lot of animosity. I’m just curious, is there a problem and is there kind of a way to address it?”
Grace said he agreed with both assessments, and said he did not appreciate the tone behind some of the questions. Though the Republican “brand” influences his politics, Grace said, he is displeased with the lack of respect being shown.
“I’ve got a daughter who loves Trump and a daughter who thinks I’m nuts,” Grace said. “And it’s great, it’s just absolute fun. But they’re all taught to have a polite discourse and, unfortunately, in this day and age, there are people who practice identity politics or personal politics, and if that’s the swamp they want to live in, I can’t do anything about it. You try to rise above it, and there’s no reason for it...You’re my neighbor and we all should treat each other with that type of respect.”
The entire presentation and slideshow can be viewed on YorktownNY.org.