Odell Talks Butterfield, Tilly Foster Farm And Brewster Bulldogs Professional Hockey
John Jordan | December 2015
CARMEL—The year 2015 saw some changes in Putnam County government, from Tourism Director Libby Pataki taking leave to manage her husband former New York Gov. George Pataki’s Presidential bid to Putnam Economic Development Director Meghan Taylor leaving the PEDC to take on a key regional post with the Empire State Development Corp.
However, the county advanced some major projects this year, including the Tilly Foster Farm and the Butterfield projects. The year also saw the PEDC hire Jill Varricchio to lead the organization (see story on page 14) as well as the introduction of professional ice hockey to the county with the drop of the puck at the Brewster Ice Arena for the county’s own Brewster Bulldogs.
Real Estate In-Depth recently sat down with Putnam County Executive MaryEllen Odell at her offices in Carmel. Odell, who spent 18 years in the real estate business working as a title closer, prior to her first taking office as Putnam County Executive in 2012, was re-elected to her second term of office in November 2014.
Q: You just completed your budget for 2015-2015. Why don’t you give us some of the highlights of the budget package?
Odell: It is a $154-million budget. (The Putnam County Legislature adopted a $151.3-million budget for 2016 in late November). It is $4 million over last year’s spending, all of it tied to unfunded mandates; pension and medical costs are the two drivers of the increases in the budget. We were hoping that with the (2%) tax cap, mandate relief would come along with it. The Medicaid cap certainly helped but there has been a lot of other cost shifting that we noticed in the (state) budget. I have the good fortune to serve on the Board of Directors for NYSAC (New York State Association of Counties) as a County Executive in the Ninth District. I must say the struggles are statewide. It is the same feeling across the board—the mandates are increasing and the funding is decreasing and when you look at a social fiscal responsibility as a public official we are having a real hard time keeping our budgets under the cap.
Q: Did you have to impose any layoffs?
Odell: We did not. We did some reorganization, we did some consolidations, but we did not have any layoffs… The real hot button topic was the retiree health care contribution piece (of the budget). We designed a formula where those that receive a low pension of say up to $10,000 (a year) would see a nominal increase in their contributions, always offset by their Medicare Part B contribution. The system is based on your pension (income) and your increase would be coordinated with that. Basically, what we are saying is that if you are a retiree with a county pension of $65,000 or more, the top tier, you would be contributing 30% of your premium. The conversation from the civil service workers and management was, “When we came into county government to serve as public servants we were guaranteed that we would have free medical.” But, we should note at that time it was costing taxpayers about $66 a month. Today it costs $2,000. So it was a promise that was unsustainable and I think everyone, whether you are in the public sector or the private sector, understands that medical health insurance is something that is just becoming unaffordable to everyone. It is my position and the position of my support on the Legislature that we are here to represent 100,000 taxpayers in this county who are struggling everyday to make sure that their families have their health insurance and we didn’t feel that the increase was going to dramatically affect their lifestyle. Certainly the retirees that retired some years ago were concerned and called and once we explained what the numbers were they were fine.
Q: Earlier this year you spoke before the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors’ Commercial Investment Division and discussed a proposed sewer line extension with the City of Danbury, CT.
Odell: Tomorrow we will find out if Danbury Mayor (Mark) Boughton has another term. (Editor’s Note: Boughton was re-elected). In the interim we have been working with the Butterfield project, which will go for a final vote (later in November) with the Legislature to sign a lease with the developer…
That is the highlight economic development project for the western part of the county. We had such great success with the Putnam County Golf Course as a property, which we acquired through the watershed (agreement) through the prior administration and which is now running in the black and is very successful not only financially, but also as a tourism destination.
We are about to turn the corner on Tilly Foster (Farm) where the construction is starting to get some traction and we hope to have the BOCES Culinary educational program up and running by the spring… Editor’s Note: The county is in the process or redeveloping the property into an educational and agricultural center.
Q: How long is the redevelopment project at Tilly Foster going to take?
Odell: The concept of Tilly Foster began I would say more than a year ago and the final completion to the equine studies I would say we are a good 18 months away.
Editor’s Note: County Executive Odell noted that with Mayor Boughton’s re-election, Putnam County and Danbury will be working to finalize the agreement with the City of Danbury, CT to tap into that city’s excess water supply and to bring sewer service over the state line to sections of Danbury Road in Brewster. The initiative, if advanced, would require federal approval. The cost of the connection would be approximately $6 million. In terms of the Butterfield project, the Putnam County Legislature approved the lease agreement with developer Paul Guillaro in November and construction has begun on the mixed-use project in Cold Spring. Putnam County residents Roger Ailes and his wife Beth donated $500,000 towards the establishment of the Roger Ailes Senior Center. The Butterfield property is being repurposed into a mixed-use complex that, in addition to hosting the senior center, will offer retail, office space and senior housing. The development will also have Pataki Park, a one-acre park named in honor of the former New York Governor and Garrison resident George Pataki.
Q: Tourism Director Libby Pataki went on leave to manage her husband former Governor George Pataki’s run for the White House. Has that been difficult and how have you managed tourism in her absence?
Odell: Of course we miss Libby’s energy and ability to really understand what really drives tourism coming out of her being the First Lady of New York and having been so involved in the “I Love New York” campaign, but she had a Deputy Director that came on with her Frank Smith who is a Carmel High School graduate and a graduate of Syracuse University and is attending Pace University Law School on a full scholarship. It has been a seamless transition in terms of the department. Katie DeMarco rounds out the team. A most recent event they held (Oct. 25) was Pumpkin Poalooza, which moved from Tilly Foster Farm because of the construction to Veteran’s Park and they said they had a wonderful event…
Libby Pataki and the Film Commission are still plowing ahead to entice producers and directors into the area. We note that you can basically film any genre here whether it is historical or modern. We have that to offer. Tilly Foster we hope to re-open in the spring and re-introduce the property to the community not only as a historic property, but as an educational facility as well… The most exciting thing happening is the Brewster Bulldogs, which is coming to Putnam County at the Brewster Ice Arena… (See story on page 17).
Q: How do you see the Putnam County economy faring right now?
Odell: The residential market from the folks I have been talking to is holding on in spite of the fact that there are still numbers indicating that foreclosures are still something we are very concerned about. What is happening to those (foreclosed or distressed) properties I think is interesting. You have a lot of investors coming in and taking those properties off the tax (delinquency) rolls and redeveloping them much like we did with the Chapter 31 program. We have now engaged five Realtors (in the Chapter 31 program) working with each other to take a look at the tax foreclosure properties that the county has unfortunately title to and market them. The program has been a success because we have helped local businesses like our local Realtors get involved with each other and that networking is always positive, and then getting those properties back on the tax rolls. That certainly leads to beautification of the neighborhood where the are in because often times those properties can become a blight and that just devalues all of the properties around it…
Moving forward, we are hoping to start the design work on Butterfield. That campus in itself is going to be such a vital part of economic revitalization. It is going to create short-term construction jobs as well as permanent sustainable jobs.
Q: The Butterfield Project is in fact an example of a public-private partnership?
Odell: You could definitely put it in the public-private partnership genre in terms of who the players are. You have Unicorn Contracting and Paul Guillaro as the developer. You have the county and the town working together to develop this friendship, nutrition center and then you have the Ailes and their generosity…