Less than a month after returning from the Horn of Africa on his latest deployment for the U.S. Navy Reserve, on Feb. 25 Trustee Vincent Grasso held a Q&A session for residents at the village courthouse. The wide-ranging informal chat covered a variety of topics including village finances, infrastructure, recycling, green space and development.
First up for discussion was talk of finances after the credit rating agency Moody’s Investor’s Services last February downgraded the village’s bond rating status from Baa3 to Ba1, placing it in the “junk” category. The downgrade means that the village could see increased borrowing costs going forward until the rating improves.
“It’s not good,” Grasso said of the situation, “but it’s not the-sky-is-falling bad.”
He assured residents that it has and would not affect village operations and services, and said that it resulted from a tension between steadily rising costs and a reluctance to raise taxes. He also argued that as a credit-rating agency, its first responsibility is to municipal bondholders, not village residents.
Moody’s in its report cited years of operating deficits and structurally unbalanced budgets leading to an eroded reserve fund. The village has given a number of explanations for the decline, citing infrastructure projects and property-tax refunds.
Resident Thomas Dowling asked if recent large-scale projects such as the construction of the new village courthouse at the former Village Hall building on Rockaway Avenue, as well as the reconstruction of the village’s Arlington Road sanitation transfer station had affected the rating.
Grasso explained that as capital projects, the associated expenses for the two structures are separate from the annual operating costs the village incurs, the latter of which he admitted was the area where village officials had been reluctant to raise taxes to meet those costs.
He argued, however, that the services residents get for the annual amount they pay in village taxes — about $2,000 for the average homeowner — is a good deal, and include maintenance on over 100 acres of park land, a municipal pool, street maintenance for more than 90 miles of road and reliable garbage and recycling pickup.
To the last service, Grasso noted the recent controversy over the village’s recent decision to switch to dual-stream recycling, and to stop accepting all plastics except those labeled Nos. 1 and 2.
It was a necessity, he said, after China stopped cheaply accepting the world’s recyclables, leading struggling domestic recycling haulers to pass on increased expenses to the governments they contract with.
“So how does a municipality deal with it?” Grasso said.
Deputy Treasurer David Sabatino, who was present at the meeting, and who had helped spearhead the changes to the village’s recycling program explained some of the details about why they were necessary. He expressed hope that as the American recycling market develops, more types of plastic, such as No. 5 would become recyclable again, and both manufacturers and consumers would begin to change their plastic-use habits.
But perhaps the largest topic of discussion was that of development in the village.
Dowling raised concerns over how recent pushes to build higher-density housing in the village might affect school district population, and Gena Rositano expressed worry over how rental apartments might lead to a loss of green space.
While the discussion of school population remained inconclusive by the end, Grasso noted that the age-makeup of neighborhoods typically travelled along a sine curve over time as residents move in, have children, age and move away.
The goal, he explained, of incentivizing development was to create what he and many suburban design experts refer to as “full lifecycle housing,” in Valley Stream. While the neighborhood has a good stock of high-value, single-family homes, it is lacking in cheap rental housing, and more severely, senior housing, he said.
Additionally, he noted the high cost to rent at some of the newest apartments in the neighborhood, such as Sun Valley Towers on the corner of Sunrise Highway and Rockaway Avenue and the Promenade on North Central Avenue. Both have single bedroom units that cost upwards of $2,000 to rent, which he said was not ideal.
He attributed their costliness to a lack of supply relative to high demand, but as far as government is concerned, it can only regulate.
“All we can do is created the conditions, create the environment for growth,” he said, noting that on that front his thinking has evolved.
He said that among internal talks in the village of high-density development projects, he was involved in two, most recently rentals for the corner of Wallace Court and Payan Avenue. In that case he said he helped negotiate to have the developers behind the project, Paramount Construction, contribute a $25,000 tree fund to the village in exchange for the zone-change and density variances the project required.
After spearheading an effort to develop a state grant proposal for downtown revitalization last year, however, he realized “you can demand a lot more,” from developers he said, such as streetscape improvements, and admitted “I kind of sold us short,” noting it was “a lesson learned.”
In the future, he encouraged residents to be more receptive to such proposals, which could generate more business activity, defray the property-tax burden and make Valley Stream an even more attractive place to live.
He finished with an invitation for residents to become more involved in the village, coming to meetings with their concerns and requests. He said that features such as the Village Green dog park, the Pagan-Fletcher Restoration, Community Fest and additional offerings at the Recreation Department all resulted from residents coming to them and pitching ideas, and teased the launch of what he referred to as a “shepherd program” intended to help ideas from residents, if feasible, become reality.
“We want people to know that if you come to the village board and say we have this great idea ... the village is going to do everything we can to support citizens who want to shepherd this program to fruition.”