I moved to Port Chester 15 years ago, not long after I graduated from Williams College with a BA in Political Economy. I worked on Wall Street and in corporate America, went to business school part time to get an MBA in Financial Management from Pace University, and I decided I wanted to “give back” to the community that had become my home, Port Chester. I decided to wade into the civic waters. I first became involved with the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee (CPAC) because I wasn't pleased with the decisions being made regarding our waterfront, and I wanted to see economic development become a priority for the local government. During that time, the Board of Trustees surveyed the village to fill a vacant Board of Trustees seat. It was an enticing opportunity, so when the appointment was offered, I grabbed it.
When I sought that appointment to the Board, I was motivated by my concern that escalating property taxes in Port Chester, and all of Westchester County, were driving young professionals like me out of the area. Many of my friends and I felt that the taxes we were paying were not commensurate with the services we were receiving. I was once a renter who bought a place, not once, but twice, in Port Chester. I love the urban, yet small-town feel of Port Chester. I see now, as I saw then, the enormous potential that is waiting to be unleashed in Port Chester. What I have learned is that the old models of governing no longer work. Unfortunately, what I have also learned is that our governing bodies are also not working. We need to create new alliances that accomplish things for our residents. That is why I am running on a unity ticket that is a fusion of a registered Democrat, Conservative and non-affiliated voters, and me as the lone Republican . . . all of us on the Republican ticket, mind you.
When I ran for Trustee three years ago, I promised to hold the line on taxes, spending and debt. During the 2011-12 budget cycle, I was part of a fiscally responsible majority that amended the Village Manager’s budget and did what very few governing bodies do these days: we cut the tax levy and decreased year-over-year spending. Specifically, we took about $1.3 million out of the tax levy and reduced spending by approximately $100,000 – all without one lay-off. In fact, the Auditors Report for the 2011-12 budget year showed that we ended that budget cycle with a $250,000 surplus.
We also put an end to long-term borrowing and spending, shifted to lower cost, short-term borrowing that shaved nearly $4 million of long-term debt off of our balance sheet and saved $300,000 in debt service. Not only are we now receiving monthly financial reports from our Treasurer, we also have a draft, five-year operating budget that will be instructive to the Board as we move forward and plan for the future. These were all things I advocated for while on the previous Board. For me, this was not just about keeping promises that I had made; rather, my expectations were happily exceeded by the results of our decisions. There are too many households in Port Chester fighting to take “every penny a prisoner” during these uncertain and challenging economic times. What our local government can and should be doing is providing relief and not adding to our residents' tax burden.
This brings me to some of the issues I would like to focus on in a second elected term. We desperately need to fix a Code Enforcement and Amnesty program that may have begun with the best of intentions, but in reality has contributed to the angst of our residents. I also want to focus on smart economic development as it relates to the United Hospital site and the waterfront. Only by focusing intensely on these issues can the Board continue to deliver a fiscally responsible budget as we have done since 2011.
As I have walked our Village these past few weeks and spoken with our residents, it is clear that the latest Code Enforcement effort and Amnesty program is handicapping property owners who simply trusted a system that was irretrievably broken. We must not lose sight of the big picture. We must focus on the real culprits who have willfully violated our Code for decades, thereby threatening the health, safety and welfare of those who own their properties. We need to redouble that focus, and make sure that we do not punish the law-abiding homeowner who thought they were abiding by the rules. Our homeowners simply should not pay for what the government failed to do. I would like to consider grandfathering certain properties and forgiving open permits. The Board needs to take a hard and close look at what is happening with Code Enforcement, the Amnesty program, and the Building Department, and make smart investments to enhance the professional staff and increase inspections, particularly on multi-family properties.
We can’t begin a conversation about economic development without talking about the 15-acre lot on our Route 1 corridor. When it comes to considering the United Hospital site, owned by Starwood Capital, I think it would foolhardy not to engage investors who may be willing to invest in what could be a $200 million-plus project. I have said repeatedly that I oppose Starwood’s proposed plan of 800+ residential units. I would like to work with Starwood to develop a vision for the site that is consistent with the people’s vision that is reflected in our Comprehensive Plan. We need a project that will bring net revenue to the Village and not negatively impact our school system or infrastructure. In my managerial roles on Wall Street and for other Fortune 50 companies like Chubb & Son or PepsiCo, Inc., I learned that you can’t negotiate a deal in a vacuum. Our Comprehensive Plan offers a vision, and it is time for the Board of Trustees to lead, and not stymie, the discussion. Let’s realize the potential of the United Hospital site and consider a host of alternatives by working with an investor(s) who are willing and able to infuse badly needed economic development capital in our Village.
Economic development in the Village can also be greatly enhanced if we were to finally revitalize one of our best, but most severely underutilized assets, our Marina and waterfront area. I was proud to shepherd through the Board of Trustees a resolution that tasked stakeholders from the Village, the Industrial Development Agency (IDA), and the Waterfront Commission to develop a comprehensive vision that will make our waterfront a destination not only for Port Chester residents, but for residents from all over Westchester. It is time we turned an area that has sadly become known as a “parking lot” and make it into a thriving marina area that can and will generate revenue for the Village.
My goal is to look for creative and innovative ways to generate revenue for the Village through smart economic development. Let's stop the tax madness that has plagued government at all levels for too long. I've never been one to shy away from making the tough calls that hold the line on taxes and spending, and I am especially determined to unlock the economic development potential of this Village by collaborating with investors who want to invest in Port Chester, and by being proactive about how we can make our greatest asset, the Marina and waterfront, a destination for all.
My name is Joe Kenner and I would appreciate your vote for Trustee on March 19.
Editor's note: This is an updated version of the author's original letter, updated at 12:20 p.m. Wednesday.