LWV Debate: Who Should Lead Larchmont?

Sharp Differences Emerge in Countdown to March 21 Election Day

by Judy Silberstein

(March 15, 2006) Candidates vying for two trustee spots and for the mayor’s seat on the Larchmont Board of Trustees faced off in two separate debates hosted by the League of Women Voters of Larchmont/Mamaroneck on Monday, March 13. The candidates addressed a range of issues on Village administration, taxes, grants, relations with police, and infrastructure, but the central question was: Who should lead Larchmont for the next two years - the incumbent, Ken Bialo, or the challenger, Liz Feld.

The Trustee Debates

Two Democrats, incumbent Trustee Marlene Kolbert and political newcomer Jim Millstein are backing Republican Trustee and Deputy Mayor Liz Feld. Peter “Bubba” Fanelli, a Democrat, and Michael Bucci, an Independent, both trying for a first term, are running with Mayor Ken Bialo, a Republican.

candidates
Trustee Candidates (l-r): Peter Fanelli, Michael Bucci, Jim Millstein and Marlene Kolbert

Mr. Fanelli, 45, a life-long resident of Larchmont and owner of United Stage Associates, opened the debate by naming taxes as the biggest issue facing the community. He called for continuing to negotiate in good faith with Larchmont’s employee unions, sharing more services with other municipalities, getting more grants from Albany and encouraging more volunteerism to keep taxes affordable and provide services “we all love.” Later he cited his own long-term volunteering as a sports coach.

Ms. Kolbert, 67, running for a third trustee term, has 40 years of experience as a local volunteer including as School Board president and fundraiser to save Davids Island. Why as an “ardent Democrat” is she teaming with Republican Liz Feld? She pointed to: unmet requests to consider how to fill a void left by the retirement of Larchmont’s long-time treasurer; growing “unease” with the dismal relations with the firefighters; and police contract negotiations so contentious that the police chief resigned at one point and residents asked her and other Board members to intervene.

Mr. Millstein, a 50-year old investment banker with Lazard Freres and member of the Larchmont Library Board, criticized Mayor Bialo’s record of a 24 percent increase in taxes, 57% increase in debt, 30% drop in reserve funds, and overreliance on consultants “who report only to the mayor.” With only a part-time mayor, part-time treasurer, and unfilled position of engineer, “We don’t have a plan or the staff to address it,” he said. He cited a background in corporate restructuring, and said “We can do better.”

Mr. Bucci, 49, dedicated his opener to “listing my particulars” including: degrees from Brown, University of Michigan law, and NYU law; 20 years as a lawyer, and moving to Larchmont in 2001 to marry his wife, Erika, a widow with two children. The couple now have two more children, and Mr. Bucci is running “because Larchmont is my home, my kids are young and I want to help preserve Larchmont’s unique character and make a remarkable place even better.”

An Administrator for the Village?

The League of Women Voters jump-started the trustee debate by asking: Should Larchmont be looking for an administrator to help manage the Village?

None of the candidates fully endorsed the concept of hiring a professional administrator for the Village of Larchmont, but they differed in their openness to the idea.

“We actually had an administrator; his name was Carmine DeLuca,” said Ms. Kolbert, referring to Larchmont’s long-term half-time treasurer. His retirement and the loss of the Village Engineer, both in 2004, left tremendous voids, she said. She recommended first hiring a Village engineer to supervise the huge number of ongoing projects and then looking into ways of “cloning Carmine,” perhaps by broadening the duties of existing positions. “People are scaring people - manager, $200K!” she said, but there were creative ways to restructure Village Hall.

“Predictably, my feeling is exactly the opposite,” said Mr. Bucci. He called an administrator an “additional burden to the taxpayers to the tune of $200K to $250K for virtually no additional benefit.” He said, everyone knows what all the problems are, “they should be solved not farmed out to another layer of bureaucracy.” He concurred with his opponents on the need for transparency, which he defined as every issue going straight to the mayor without being filtered by an administrator.

Mr. Millstein pointed out “Larchmont is the only municipality in Westchester that doesn’t have an administrator,” except for Tuckahoe. In the absence of Mr. DeLuca and an engineer, Larchmont has been relying on consultants; last year’s bill was $120K for outside lawyers and $280K for consultant engineers. “Somewhere in those budget items we can find room for permanent staff to help run the day-to-day business of the Village.” Further, “When we have outside consultants reporting only to the mayor, Village residents are disempowered,” and can get information only if the mayor gives it out. This has become completely nontransparent, he said.

Mr. Fanelli said, “In 1881, this town was incorporated and in all those years we haven’t had a village administration –and in my opinion we don’t need one. This town works fine.” Larchmont is only 1 square mile, this isn’t Mamaroneck, he noted, adding, “Carmine wore many, many hats, he was the man” but now, it was time to move on. “The new treasurer is a good man” and “he’s learning the ropes.” As for transparency, he said the consultants report first to the trustees, then to the mayor.

Grants?

On a question about credit for grants received by the Village, Ms. Kolbert replied that the process can take many years and many grants recently received were applied for under the previous administration, including $1M for the train station renovation and $100K for the streetscape. Relations with other government officials “should be vastly improved,” she said, “There have been hard feelings and often Larchmont is at the bottom of the list”

Mr. Fanelli defended Mayor Bialo’s administration by spending his entire response time quickly reciting a long list of grants received since 2002, including money for the streetscape, sewers, Flint Park, police equipment, and the Village website redesign. “Darn good,” he concluded. Mr. Bucci declined further comment, “I think Bubba covered it,” he laughed.

Mr. Millstein said even if he credited Mr. Fanelli’s list as valid and worth around $1M in grants over the past 4 years, this was “better than nothing,” but a very small amount in the context of the $90M in taxes Larchmont residents send to county, state and federal governments each year. “The reality is we have to play better with others,” he said “We’re not getting our fair share.”

The Police Endorsement?

The most pointed disagreement came over a question on whether it was appropriate for the police to endorse Liz Feld in this campaign.

No, it was inappropriate, contended Mr. Bucci “Police are supposed to remain neutral and care for every member of the Village.” He added, “I don’t think people who don’t side with them in a contract negotiation get any comfort believing that maybe a response at their house would be any longer than another.” He said, at bottom, the mayor had “negotiated very zealously” and the police felt Ms. Feld would have given them more.

Mr. Millstein strongly disagreed, saying the endorsement came because the mayor had “publicly humiliated members of the force and their families” when they came to a Board meeting. Mr. Millstein said he is currently representing the United Auto Workers in contract negotiations over benefits worth billions of dollars, but he has never heard the CEO of GM, Ford or Chrysler use the “kind of language Mayor Bialo used in those negotiations.”

“I like the police department, they do a fine job and they are there when you need them,” said Mr. Fanelli. “But it was very unprofessional of them to pick a side.” He pointed to skyrocketing retiree costs and said there is nothing any administration could do about costs handed down from Albany. The Village has to “pony up” on what the police have earned, but it was the police refusing to budge that caused an 18 month impasse, he said. Everyone had to “give a little to get a little.”

Ms. Kolbert noted that Mr. Fanelli had displayed a PBA sign on his lawn during the dispute, but took offense at Mr. Bucci’s remarks. “The police are going to give 100%” regardless of which side a person took,” she said. “You have to ask yourself why, after 115 years of never endorsing” the police and professional firefighters have taken a stand. The contract agreed to after 18 months, “could have been made a whole lot earlier and we would not have been in this place.”

Working with the Mayor?

Ms. Kolbert said it had been very hard to work with Mayor Bialo. As examples she cited his unwillingness to stop smoking during work sessions and his setting agendas without input from other Board members. She knew she could work better with Ms. Feld, because she already had been working with her.

Mr. Fanelli defended the mayor, noting that in 97% of the votes over the past 4 years, Board members had agreed with the mayor.” That’s why the Bialo administration was so effective,” he said. “You got a lot done and this Village is thankful for the Bialo administration and the Board that served under him. “

Mr. Bucci was unpersuaded by Ms. Kolbert’s comments. “So what I’m hearing is that there is a groundswell of opposition to Ken and a desire to oust him because he smokes cigarettes and is a little abrupt?” Campaign rhetoric with no specifics “just doesn’t meet the threshold” to explain “the mutiny,” he said.

Mr. Millstein answered, “Michael there is something more going on,” and cited the “watershed event” as the police negotiation, which “Liz felt the mayor mishandled.” He said it was expensive, with $75K going for legal fees that could have gone to pay for the deal, and that the mayor refused to meet with the police for a long time.

The one item that all four candidates appeared to agree on, by the end, was the need for a "breath of fresh air." Predictably, there was no agreement on which slate of candidates would supply it.

For all of the trustees' remarks catch a rebroadcast on LMC-TV. You can watch on your television or, for the first time ever, on LMC-TV's new streaming video over the Internet. (See: LMC-TV Debuts Streaming Video in Time for the Candidates' Debate)

The Mayor Debate
mayors
Two-term Trustee & Deputy Mayor Liz Feld vs. Two-Term Mayor Ken Bialo
A possible village administrator, the village engineer, taxes, and infrastructure were the top issues debated by the two mayoral candidates.

Following statements by the two mayoral candidates - incumbent Mayor Ken Bialo, 59, and current Trustee and Deputy Mayor Liz Feld, 45 - the debate opened on the question of an administrator for the Village. The candidates batted that issue back and forth for the majority of the debate, weaving in discussions on the Village Engineer, taxes and infrastructure.

“Some professional management is missing, sorely needed and needs to be hired,” said Ms. Feld, who said she had raised the issue during this election because “we need to have a public discussion about it.” But her first priority would be to hire a Village Engineer again.

Mr. Bialo argued that the administrator issue had never been broached by any of the trustees – before the campaign season - despite time at every public meeting for trustees to discuss whatever they wished.. He estimated it would cost $200K to $250K in salaries and benefits for an administrator plus an assistant, and that a 1-square-mile village does not need “another layer of bureaucracy.”

According to Mr. Bialo, the former Village Engineer left for a better job in Greenburgh, and after the entire Board interviewed potential replacements from the Civil Service List without finding an acceptable candidate, Larchmont was fortunate that its “well respected long-time consultant” engineers stepped forward.

The engineer left, not for a better job, but because “his recommendations were being ignored” contended Ms. Feld. In a detailed exit memo, the former engineer had advised attending to the water main over the Chatsworth Bridge, scheduling replacement of the water tank, and conducting a water leak survey, none of which had been discussed since then, she said.

“We repair things when they break,” responded Mayor Bialo. It would cost $100M to replace the 26 miles each of sewers, storm sewers and water mains. Later, he clarified, “the water tanks and water pipelines are working just fine,” and said if he thought they were going to break he’d be working hard to fix them.

“I can’t believe what I just heard,” said Ms. Feld, amazed that her opponent would “ignore the recommendations of one of the most highly respected engineers in the county because it isn’t really broken.” Further, she said the Village had paid the consultant over $200K including a $40K cost overrun for supervising sidewalk construction and $65K for a Pinebrook study that duplicated one done in 1999.

By Mr. Bialo’s estimate, however, the consultant cost 20K less than paying a Village engineer for routine work; a supervising engineer for the sidewalk was a required part of the contract; and the cost overrun was because of a bad contract “signed by someone who is sitting up here with me.”

The two candidates also differed, predictably, on finances, pension costs, taxes and debt.

Were taxes a problem? Yes, said Mayor Bialo. Like all municipalities, what’s driving up taxes is contributions to the state pension system, which he said have gone from $20K in his first year as mayor to $975K this year. Over the four years, Larchmont taxes have gone up 24%, compared to Scarsdale’s 22%, Town of Mamaroneck’s 26% and City of Rye’s 44%. He said pension costs were expected to plateau and there was a possibility of further relief, if pension reform is enacted at the state level. Borrowing was done at “very, very good rates.”

Ms. Feld said, she went along with the borrowing for “all the right reasons,” including low rates and because she “thought we had a plan” for “projects in the pipeline.” But she said $200K had been spent on loans “without a shovel in the ground” on the Flint Park expansion or a fix of the “ice patch problem.” The problem? "We don’t have enough oversight and coordination to make it happen.” She accused Mr. Bialo of mocking advice from former Village Treasurer Carmine DeLuca to prepare for what he predicted (accurately) would be large increases in pension costs.

Leadership?

Asked to comment on her criticisms of the mayor’s leadership style when over 95% of board votes were unanimous, Ms. Feld noted that she differed with the mayor over two major issues: the budget (because she disapproved of overreliance on short-term strategies of tax increases and borrowing) and the police contract. There were other issues “hashed out” in private sessions. Public votes were on less contentious items:”Who wouldn’t vote for the pet parade?” But memos from her and Ms. Kolbert that raised financial, infrastructure and administrative issues “never went anywhere.”

“An enormous, arm-long list of accomplishments” and unanimity on 97% of the votes “didn’t happen by accident,” countered Mr. Bialo. “Liz and Marlene and Anne [McAndrews] are members of the board, they have free speech time” on every agenda to bring up whatever issue they wish, including the concept of a village administrator, which, if raised, would have been studied by the Budget Committee. He suggested taking a look at the agenda, “We don’t just vote on the pet parade.”

In Sum

In closing, Mr. Bialo said he hoped “I have earned your trust,” as a “tough negotiator in protecting your interests,” and in having been elected 7 times since 1991. His vision for the future included “keeping the lid on taxes,” adding playing fields and green space, more “fine-tuning of land-use laws, and pursuit of non-tax revenue such as grants.

Ms. Feld said, “Larchmont works, but we need to make it work better.” A $14M business “cannot be run solely by a volunteer” or by “outsourcing” operations to consultants who “look to their own bottom line,” she said. She would “leverage private investment for the public good" and make greater use of the Village Budget Committee to face challenges “that will affect generations to come.“ The vital role of the mayor is to bring people together,” she concluded.