By Matthew Saari
The consensus of why Whitehall residents voted the way they did last month can be summed up in a word – change. So what can village residents expect in the coming months?
With just over a week in office, Mayor Phil Smith has been acquainting himself with the duties of his office and familiarizing himself with the issues facing the village and developing plans to combat those issues.
Departments are rushing to draft and finalize their budgets for approval; the village clerk is collecting water and sewer payments; village officials are working to get a sewer upgrades project started. Now the village has added to the mix a newly elected board.
For Smith this boils down to prioritization.
Before any sweeping, long-term initiatives can be implemented, he has to clear the proverbial plate put in front of him, tackling the short-term issues.
First is approving the village budget. Drafted by the former board, the budget is fairly unique to the region in that prior board members did not exceed the state-imposed tax cap, something many communities, including neighboring Granville, are struggling with.
Although he had no part in forming the budget, Smith commended the former board for its efforts and said he doesn’t foresee any major changes to the budget. The public can voice any concerns regarding the budget at a public hearing on April 18 at 6 p.m.
A lesser known aspect of budget season, but no less important, are the union negotiations the village must conduct with the police and the Department of Public Works unions. Smith has reached out to union officials to get the process started but has yet to receive a response, he said. Regardless, Smith said he believes the process will proceed smoothly.
“I don’t foresee any big stumbling blocks but you just don’t know what they’re going to ask for,” he said.
Perhaps the most time-sensitive item on Smith’s plate is breaking ground on the sewer upgrades project.
The sanitary sewer upgrade project has been in the works for nearly a decade but now that the village has been awarded a $4.2 million grant, the project will finally get off the ground. Work is expected to start this spring.
“We’re very close, I think by the first of May we have to get started,” Smith said.
With regard to long-term planning, Smith said targeting the village blight is among his top priorities.
“We have buildings, at least one that’s on the verge of falling down,” said Smith, referencing the Flat Iron Building on Skenesborough Drive.
Removing blight will be an uphill battle for Smith and village officials as much of it is caused by foreclosed properties and absentee landlords. Smith met with village zoning officer Peter Telisky as well as county officials in an effort to understand and combat the issue.
Smith said the Flat Iron building is a perfect example of the troubles village officials are running into.
“They (the county) have a thick folder on this…The big issue is that the owner, they can’t find him. Not only is he absentee, but they cannot locate him. So it’s a big quagmire of trying to move forward with this. Someone’s been paying the taxes so you can’t seize the property for unpaid taxes but no one knows where the money is coming from,” said Smith. “There’s a lot of issues right there.”
In the future, Smith said he hopes to get state officials involved to track the landlord down and resolve the issue.
To push the anti-blight agenda forward, Smith said he and the village board will have to rely on current laws and ordinances to draw a hard line with the worst offenders, all in an effort to develop Whitehall’s tax base.
“We’ll work on getting some of these properties fixed up and on the tax roll,” Smith said.
Consolidation of village expenses also ranks high on Smith’s agenda, but before any cuts are made, Smith wants to ensure he understands the all the variables including departments and services affected.
“I’m cautious about moving too quickly…without the due diligence of making sure it makes sense,” Smith said.
Regarding Whitehall’s economic prospects, Smith referenced his efforts on the village planning board, in which trustee Teresa Austin played a part.
The planning board was in the midst of enhancing an existing plan which Smith described as a “roadmap of where we want Whitehall in 10 – 15 years.” Smith was quick to add that “we” is defined as village residents, not simply board members.
Unfortunately the effort has slowed to a halt because of the elections removing Smith and Austin from the planning board, which now has three vacancies. Smith said he hopes to fill these seats soon.