Monday, October 24, 2005

Dryden School Board

Out of curiosity, I went to the school board meeting tonight. It's been a few years since my kids finished high school and I wanted to see what's going on. There were about fifty people there in addition to the Board.

Tracy Wescott and Paul Clemments reported on the progress of the renovation in all three elementary schools. Work is a bit ahead of schedule, within budget and expected to be done before the January deadline.

It was my luck that Mr Mickelson was there with the final audit report. Yeah. I like audit reports. And, though I've worked with Ciaschi, Dietershagen, Little and Mickelson for years, I've never met Mickelson (or Ciaschi or Dietershagen, for that matter.) He reported an unqualified opinion that the financial status of the district is fairly represented and that internal controls are effective. The district finished the fiscal year with a modest surplus and appears to be in sound fiscal health.

Then my favorite... Mr Bartholomew reporting on the school lunch program. I may be the only parent who ever sought out the food service director on Parents Night. But when my kids moved up to high school, they actually said good things about the cafeteria food. So I looked for Mr Bartholomew to find out how that could happen. He told me his wife and kids liked to shop at Carousel Mall in Syracuse. He doesn't care much for shopping so he'd sit in the food court and watch what kids were eating. Then, back in his office, he'd figure out how to make the food they were choosing nutritious and reasonably priced. Lunch prices have gone up to $2.00 but they still get pizza, burgers, calzones, salads and fresh fruit. Thirty-four percent of Dryden Students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches - so, I guess that helps with the increased price.

The lunch program is struggling financially since the budget structure changed to include employee benefits. Bartholomew offered several suggestions for consideration to avoid having to raise lunch prices further.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

More on rural internet access

My daughter sent me a link to a good Salon article, Technology Free American broadband! (If you don't have a Salon subscription you'll have to take a minute to watch an innocuous ad - or better yet, go ahead and subscribe.) The article reports on Citizens Communications Wireless Internet Broadband in Indiana. Scottsburg Indiana city government created Citizens communications, Corp to provide internet access to residents for $35/mo (512bps) or $70/mo (1Mbps)

The Salon article also reports that Congressman Sessions (R Texas) has introduced a bill prohibiting local governments from developing internet access services like Scottsburg's. The bill has been referred to the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet where it is apparently under consideration.

So, I've emailed Congressman Boehlert again.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Rural Internet Access

When I teased Coturnix, at Science and Politics, about time management and being interested in so many things at the same time, he replied that he writes his blog posts in his head, then takes about 20 minutes to post them. That made me think about what a handicap my modem is. I'm used to it and I take it for granted (like I take hand-washing dishes for granted). But it means my internet reading, not to mention blog writing, probably takes ten times as long as it would with broadband access.

It's not that I'm personally technologically challenged. I was programming with COBOL on a mainframe Univac in the early seventies. Does anyone here remember "do not fold, staple or mutilate" punch cards and 12" reel-to-reel data tapes? And it's not that I'm stupid or stubborn. It's that, in my rural neighborhood, the only high speed access available to me is satellite. And it's simply not worth the price.

I'm affected by the digital divide because I choose to live in the country. I wonder how many of my friends in the "ecology" section of my bookmark list are similarly affected. We may be among the last of the underrepresented minorities.

My Congressman, Sherwood Boehlert (whose Congressional page loads in seven seconds), is on the House Science Committee. I've sent him the following message.

I would like to bring your attention to the problem of internet access in rural New York. In the Town of Dryden, where I am running for Town Board, Time Warner provides broadband access to any area which has twenty or more house per mile. My mile-long road has 17 houses (if you count the subdivision with its own dead-end side road). So, I continue to rely on my modem.

It takes 5 to 15 seconds to load a page of your House website. Clicking on "Contact Your Congressman" on your sidebar takes me to the House Contact page ( where I have to look up my representative's name, 'though I already know it's you. After I fill in my name and address and click "continue" I come to the House "Write Your Representative" page (where, incidentally, "useful" has been misspelled since the page was designed years ago.) So, I'm about two minutes into it before I begin to write my message.

In a search of FirstGov for "rural internet access" seven of the first ten articles reference North Carolina, already a leader in rural technology. If I'm having this much trouble in Tompkins County, what must it be like in the Adirondaks? The digital divide is affecting a large number of your constituents, not because we're poor, but because of the population density of our neighborhoods. Perhaps New York could follow North Carolina's lead in making rural internet access a priority.

Following a two minute and fifteen second wait for the New York State homepage to open, a search for "rural internet access" returned no matches at all and I'm way beyond the amount of time I had alloted for blogging this morning.

Cross posted at Five Wells.

Monday, October 17, 2005

All Politics is Local

At the Friends of the Library Booksale last weekend, I picked up a copy of Tip O'Neill's 1994 book, All Politics is Local. The Boston Globe describes it as "A handbook for fledgling politicians." The book is a collection of folksy stories illustrating principles underlying O'Neill's political career. O'Neill was as dedicated to storytelling as he was to politics. Through the humor, the theme remains true: understanding of your neighborhood and loyalty to your supporters are the bedrock of success in politics.

The Booksale is truly one of Tompkins County's greatest institutions. It's become like a lending library with no due date. I occasionally see books I donated years ago that I know have been bought and returned a few times since then. Sometimes I wish everyone would write their names in the books. The reading lineage of some volumes would be fascinating.

If you haven't made it to the Booksale yet, you can still go next weekend (Oct 22-23) when books are all priced at .25 or .10, or Monday the 24th when you can get a grocery bag full for $1.00! They started with more than 300,000 and you'll be surprised how many good books remain the last few days. Finally, on the 25th books are free to teachers, homeschoolers and not-for-profit organizations.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Cluster Development

Surveys conducted by the Dryden Town Planning Board in 1990 and 1999 revealed that a growing majority of Dryden residents believe that preserving open space in the Town of Dryden is important. In 1990 59% of repsondents believed it was important or very important. in 1999 the number had grown to 86%. The Planning Board has incorporated this concern into the Comprehensive Plan by focusing on channeling much of the anticipated development in the town to existing villages and hamlets and by recommending adjustments to zoning densities and creative use of cluster development and standards for multi-family dwellings.

The Dryden Town Board will be developing a local law to modify minimum lot area, width, depth and setback regulations in conjunction with conservation easments on adjacent open land. Let me describe an example. If a developer plans to build forty houses in a forty acre subdivision, current lot size and setback regulations in some areas would require each of those forty houses to be on its own one acre lot. Following cluster development plans, these requirements would be modified to allow the forty houses to be built on smaller individual lots contained within twenty acres with a conservation easement to maintain the remaining twenty acres as open space. Ideally the open space can be owned and managed by a homeowners association. If that's not possible it can be owned and managed by the town. For more information visit this excellent article from the University of Minnesota Extension Service. Thanks to Joe Laquatra, from the Dryden Town Planning Board for providing the link.

Similarly, recommendations for development of multi-family housing include limits on the number of units per acre, the maximum amout of land occupied by buildings and parking lots and a requrement that a percentage of the lot be dedicated to open space.

The application of these two concepts will help to achieve the goal of preserving open space in the Town of Dryden and I applaud the Planning Board and the Town Board for their committment to preserving the rural character of the town.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Comprehensive Plan

It’s well worth looking at the Comprehensive Plan. I wish the Town website provided an html file. In my "open space" neighborhood there is no broadband or DSL service. So, downloading the 86 page PDF takes a while. But it’s worth it.

Note that a great deal of public opinion was solicited and considered in the process of developing the plan. The guiding principle has been: "acceptance...of continued growth and development" and protection of the "rural character, viability of villages and hamlets and critical open space resources" of the Town of Dryden. The plan has been developed to deal with anticipated growth over the next twenty years.

The Plan includes valuable sections including a brief history of the town and prior planning iniatives, inventory and analysis of existing resources and infrastructure and synthesis of assumptions underlying the final recommendations. But I find when people first look at the plan their eyes go first to the location of their own home on the "Future Land Use" map. So, let's look at that section first (page 48).

If the "Future Land Use" map used the same colors as the "Existing Land Use" map you might be surprised at how little difference there is. Some yellow existing agricultural land is merged with some green existing forest land into blue "agriculture land" in the future map. Some yellow existing agricultural land is merged with some green existing forest land into green "conservation/open space" land in the future. The red developed areas of the villages of Freeville and Dryden together with the forest and agricultural lands within village boudaries are simplified into lavendar "village" blocks.

The biggest change, to my eye, appears to be the consolidation of developed, undeveloped (brush and meadow) and agricultural areas west of Etna into suburban residential area. Here it's important to understand the intent of the recommendations. "The suburban Residential areas...are not proposed zoning districts [my emphasis]... [they] are expected to encompass a number of different types of residential zoning districts..." ranging from four homes per acre to one home per acre to multifamily rental property. I know there's a great deal of undeveloped land for sale on Etna Road at the moment. I would hate to wake up in twenty years to find it had all been developed with apartment buildings and single family homes on quarter acre lots. But, based on information in the Comprehensive plan, I know that's not going to happen. Given the number of new housing units anticipated and the emphasis on encouraging higher density development in existing village and hamlet centers and proposed implementation of cluster housing plans and guidelines for multifamily development I think it's quite likely that the area will develop into an attractive residential area with adjacent open spaces and agricultural areas.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Conservation Board

The Town of Dryden Conservation Board met tonight. An offer has been made to a candidate for the open position of Environmental Planner. A recommendation was made to the Planning Board that conservation easements should be held by the town, not the county. The Board needs send a representative to the county Environmental Management Council. There was some discussion of the function of the Council and the decision was postponed. The remainder of the meeting was spent reviewing the proposed stormwater ordinance (PDF). It really was interesting. But it's late now and I can't make it sound that good.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Dryden Town Budget

(Cross posted from my personal blog, Five Wells.)

Last Friday's Dryden Town Board budget workshop was interesting. Honestly. Members of the Board were cordial to Simon and me - the only representatives of the public present. The clerk was kind enough to get a copy of the preliminary copy of the budget for us - all 86 pages of it. I've had a chance, over the weekend, to condense those 86 pages to 10 more meaningful ones. I've been in touch with Supervisor Trumbull with some questions, but here are a few salient points.

1. Total expenses budgeted (about $6.5 M) remain nearly the same as expenses budgeted in 2005.

2. Revenue includes:

  • Property taxes (about $2.5 M): budgeted to increase as a function of increased assessments and tax rate remaining constant.
  • Other income (about $2.5 M), including: sales tax (budgeted at the same level as 2005), state aid (increasing 15%), interest income (increasing)

The gap between total expenses and the total of property tax and other income is covered from the substantial surplus remaining from prior years. The surplus has accumulated apparently as a result of a generous contingency line item and apparently years of spending less than is taken in. And here a quiet debate begins. Should we continue budgeting for a surplus?

Dryden Town taxes, a small fraction of total property taxes, have declined steadily in the past decade. According to figures provided by the Tompkins County Board, the Dryden town tax rate has declined from 2.65% in 1995 to a projected 1.5% in 2006. The tax levy (the total amount raised through property taxes) has declined from 1,311,451 in 1995 to $914,240 in 2005 despite rising assesments. The surplus occurs as a result of either increased other income or increased control of expenses.

Should we decrease the tax rate and stop accumulating a surplus? Should we apply the surplus to increased town services? Or are we happy to continue accumulating a surplus? A public hearing is scheduled for October 27, 2005 at 7:00 PM in the Town Hall. Try to find out all you can about the budget before then so that time at the hearing will be well spent.

Next week I'll try to look at what may be the larger issue: assessments - up 25% since 1995. Or School taxes: about 90% of the Town of Dryden is in the Dryden School District where the tax rate is up from about 16.8% in 1995 to 22.1% in 2005 on top of the increased assessments.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Town Board Candidates

Paul Lutwak and I (Mary Ann Sumner) are running for the two open seats on the Dryden Town Board. We're both from very rural parts of the town - Paul on the far south edge and me from the northwest. Our voices will bring an important balance to board voices from the eastern part of the town and from Ellis Hollow.

Since my kids finished school, I've found it difficult to stay informed about events and policy in Dryden. Simon's Living in Dryden site has been a great help. Beyond that, I find it interesting to attend the monthly Town Board meetings. I know most people find meetings deadly dull and annoying. But I've met interesting people at these meetings and heard lots of ideas being exchanged. I'm generally encouraged to hear so many people putting so much thought into issues that affect our lives in Dryden. It's honestly much more interesting than most network TV.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Natural areas

Cornell Plantation maintains a natural area on Hanshaw Road, not far from my house, primarily to encourage the Fringed Gentians that grow there. It's amazing! Thousands of intense blue flowers in a meadow of an acre or so.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Upcoming meetings

Town of Dryden Conservation Board - Tuesday, October 11 at 7:30 PM in the Dryden Town Hall. The Conservation Board doesn't keep up its page on the Town of Dryden site. So the only way to know what's going on is to go to the meetings.

Dryden Town Board regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, October 13 at 7:00 PM in the Dryden Town Hall. Expect more public input on the Comprehensive Plan and a vote on acceptance if all members of the Board show up.

Town of Dryden Planning Board - October 20 at 7:00 PM in the Dryden Town Hall. The Planning Board is good about publicizing hearings for big things like the Comprehensive Plan before decisions are finalized. But, like the Conservation Board, the only way to know what's going on at the moment is to show up.