July 18, 2005

Tom Hatfield explains Coalition for Change

I've wondered a bit about the Tompkins County Coalition for Change, not having been able to find much about it. Tom Hatfield, the Dryden Republican Committee chairman and the apparent spokesman for the group, was on WHCU this morning to talk about the group with Casey Stevens.

It's the first detailed explanation of the group I've seen, so I figured I'd transcribe it. I think WHCU may have changed its format a bit, though - this feels much longer than my earlier transcriptions of WHCU interviews.

Casey Stevens: 8:17, Tom Hatfield my guest. So, Coalition for Change is, you said that it's moving along better than you had expected?

Tom Hatfield: Yeah, I mean it's sort of a concept that's gotten started, as you know, over basically the demand for doing something about controlling the spending that the county legislature seems to have an unending appetite for. They seem to be thinking that - it's amazing. They're emulating all the Republicans in Congress. [laughter]

Casey: The so-called conservative bunch, yes. The ones who keep running the deficits up.

Tom: I prefer not to bring national or even state issues to the local needs. The Coalition for Change is all about us as citizens here in this county stepping forward, going to the ballot box this November, taking back control over our county legislature. Specifically, putting some folks in there that are going to be committed to controlling the spending.

Casey: Now, do you have an endorsement in mind, Tom? Are you looking for a line on...

Tom: Well, actually, that's a great question, because the original concept had been, in my mind, that we'd get through the primaries in September, and then the Coalition would endorse those candidates that would be willing to accept the endorsement, first of all, regardless of party, whether they be Democrat or Republican, but the key issue here was that they be looking to return accountability to our county government, that they be willing to take responsibility for establishing priorities for the spending of those dollars, not particularly advocating the elimination of any one program or programs, but the reduction of spending overall. Be that whatever it may be, and to stop the wasteful spending on projects, like the money that's been wasted on the jail today.

And that's the only thing you can cite, unless somebody can step forward and show us a way to retrieve that half-million-plus dollars in money that the current legislature, led by its chair, has thrown out the window. I see no way that we can do this, other than a wholesale change of the legislature itself.

So, that's what we were looking for, in terms of the coalition, to step in there, come September, but a funny thing happened on the way to the forum, as they once said, and we've got several candidates that have come to us that are actually wanting to be on a line in November, and in order to do that, they have to carrying petitions. So that process is now underway.

Casey: You have people actually out there, petitioning, and this would be what? A Coalition for Change party line?

Tom: Yes, it'll actually say "Coalition for Change" on the ballot this fall, in some districts. Now remember, there are fifteen separate elections going on, and you know, we've been talking to some of the folks in those districts. We certainly have not met with all of them, although we would certainly like to, but we meet with as many as are interested in talking to us between now and certainly by the end of September.

The concept is still generally to see what happens, because there are areas in the county where there are going to be primaries, for the first time in a long time. There are some really exciting things about this year, Casey. There just seem to be candidates in areas where in the past there may have been only one candidate. So, I mean, we're going to have some races this year, and hopefully we're going to have a real exchange of ideas, and we're going to have people committed to discussing the issues.

One of the Trojan Horses that's been out there in the media all this time, that has been made a whipping boy, is the assessment operation. It's a pure Trojan Horse. I mean, everybody gets upset because their assessment goes up. Well, if you think about that, it's a little bit of an oxymoron. Because if your assessment goes up it means your value has increased.

Casey: But that means you agree with Tim Joseph that it's a sign of prosperity?

Tom: I didn't say that. I said value goes up. Prosperity is a much more complex issue than the increasing value of property, because it's also tied to something called liquidity. Unless you can take that value and turn it into cash, it doesn't mean anything. But if your county legislature is sitting there and taking that value, and not recognizing that "oh, look at this, we've got a hidden tax increase of 20%," and that's happened a couple of times during the last two or three years, as those assessments have gone up. The rate hasn't come down.

Casey: Well, what should we be asking them? What is the Coalition for Change ask - you said about spending, of course - but assessment, for instance, there have been candidates who have said "I advocate this" - Hank Dullea has come up with basically, you could call it a cap. A limit.

Tom: Well, there's a lot of ideas in the marketplace of ideas in general. I mean, you go back to what California did a few years ago, which I think generally a lot of people at the time thought was a great idea. Prop 13. It has now created a serious number of inequalities and problems for some of the decision-makers and policy-makers.

Casey: I question that, because I think their legislature is much more the issue than anything...

Tom: Well, there's no question about it. To me, the question that we're, the Coalition wants to try to bring as a message, to get into the point in time where the 80% of the public that has not totally tuned in to those of us that enjoy the process and are part of the process, the issue we've got to get the public to ask one question: "Did you vote for all of this spending, or are you committed to reducing spending, or at least holding spending in check?" so that when our assessments continue to go up, the tax rate will actually go down.

Because tax rate, which they love to talk about, "tax rate had a 3% increase this year." Well fine, the assessment went up 20%. Let's see, Twenty plus three? Is it 23% increase in taxes? We can't afford that any more. We have to change the thinking.

Casey: We should only allow them the assessment change and that's it?

Tom: No. I think this should be a CPI-tied to spending at the very least. Right now, because of the spending being out of control, over the last four years, I think they need to reduce spending.

Casey: Tom Hatfield, my guest. It's called the Coalition for Change, and things are changing in Tompkins County as we head toward the November election....

I have to admit that I'd appreciate a more concrete program from a group hoping to influence local politics than cutting spending in deliberately unspecified ways, but we'll see what they develop as they endorse candidates and the campaign moves forward.

Later in the show, Tom and Casey discussed the recent public hearing on the Draft Comprehensive Plan and talked more about the potential for individuals to make a difference in local politics.

Casey: Tom Hatfield my guest. Where else - what else is on that list of yours?

Tom: Well, the news, I guess, we could do a little news.

Casey: Okay.

Tom: Out in the Town of Dryden, last week, we had a

Casey: Those new flags like to be close to the guest.

Tom: How close do you want me to get?

Casey: Those beautiful little things that say WHCU news talk.

Tom: Yes, absolutely. Well, let's do some news talk. There was a public hearing last Thursday at 7pm, in the Town of Dryden as the Town Board held its first hearing - I think maybe the last of several hearings have been held on the new long-term plan for the Town of Dryden. So that process has...

Casey: 20 years?

Tom: You know, plans look out twenty, thirty years. They try to set a groundwork, a framework, where opportunities can happen, and allow a community to have some say over where those opportunities for change occur, and how they might change, I guess. This process began back - twelve, maybe even more years ago, now, when I was on the Town Board, through that eight-year cycle, and I think it's been almost six years since. So it's finally coming to fruition. These comprehensive plans take a tremendous amount of time and effort, and they, I was thinking this morning as I was heading in, what the common link had been through all that timeframe. I had started out on the Town Board, and ended up on the Planning Board, and the current Town Board, most of those - in fact all of those members, all five of them - weren't on the Town Board when that began.

The common link in that entire timeframe has been the Chair of the Planning Board for the Town of Dryden, Barbara Caldwell. She deserves just tremendous credit for providing the stability and the vision to keep this thing moving. Not oversteering it, allowing the process to play out. So it's been I think a really positive process.

Casey: I need to ask you a tough question. Some farmers are objecting to it. You've worked with farmers for years; you've been a resident of Dryden forever.

Tom: I grew up on a dairy farm, my parents owned a dairy farm here in Tompkins County, my brother owns a dairy here in Tompkins County, some of my tax clients are farmers. I like to think I have as good a handle on certain aspects of farming as anyone with that background could have. One thing I know about farmers is that they are fiercely independent people. The other thing I know about farmers in general is that they don't mind telling you what they're thinking. So, from that perspective...

Casey: It's one of the reasons they farm. [laughter]

Tom: Maybe. It's definitely a lifestyle.

Casey: And we love 'em for doing it.

Tom: Absolutely. I mean thank God they do it. The thing that became so apparent to me, sitting on the Town Board at the time when the first survey went out, is how important the landscape that our farmers create for us as we drive the highways and byways of the Town of Dryden. The overwhelming response from the population, and we had like 25% respond to the survey, which, you realize, most surveys, you get 2 or 3% and they think they're wildly successful.

Casey: 25%'s not bad.

Tom: Tremendous response to the survey. The overdriving thing was "Don't change the rural character of our community." And so this plan incorporates a real bias in favor of maintaining that rural character. There's no question about it. But it also recognizes that our town is changing. If you'll wander around parts of Dryden today you'll see a lot of new homes in construction, being placed. So you drive around the Village of Dryden and around the Village of Freeville into the hamlets in Etna, and, you know, Varna, the areas of the town, out of places like Wood Road, and out towards Bone Plain, there's a lot of just pressure that's building out there.

I mean if you look at what's going on in Tompkins County, the Village of Lansing has sort of exploded and grown -

Casey: That's a good point.

Tom: Look at the pressure, right now the airport's sort of a dividing line, and yet you come across that to where the NYSEG building stood for years, all by itself, and look at that corner right now, across the street...

Casey: I think we've leaped the airport here.

Tom: I think we've made the leap, okay. So these are important issues. The Town Board held a hearing, and there was one member of the farm community that stepped up. One of the things that you need to stress is that we've got a lot of absentee landowners in this county, and in our town, but this is really about letting the town owners, the folks that live there, our residents, speak up, speak out, and there were, it was mixed. I think there's certainly farmers that would like to see no zoning, and there are farmers that realize that they need to be protected from the encroachment of you know, urban populations, which can affect their ability to farm, and the technology they employ, and the way they do their business.

Casey: So, are we happy with the way the right-to-farm laws have evolved over time - Tom, I mean that's a part of that system, isn't it?

Tom: Dryden has pioneered that at the local level. We've had a right-to-farm law for a long, long time and that's been the bedrock. There are other protections built in at the state level to protect farms. One of the things that came out of the reaction of the farm community, when we went back and looked at it, and we asked some of the expertise that was available to us, was to take a look at what we were proposing. In fact, our first run at trying to protect our farmers, actually in some ways was going to hurt them. So we backed away from that, and we went about it in a different way.

But generally, in the Town of Dryden, it's viewed that agriculture is primo. I mean, it's allowed as a right throughout the town. So regardless of whether you're a farmer with a very small operation maybe a organic farm with 20 or 30 acres under cultivation, or maybe you're pursuing the development of goat cheese, or you know, some other type of operation, we have put in place the mechanisms to allow you to continue to pursue your trade.

The thing that we also try to keep in mind, given the change that's going on throughout agricultural industry today, most folks probably don't realize it, in New York State the #1 industry remains agriculture.

Casey: Agriculture.

Tom: In all of its forms. Of course, I would have said dairy farming, growing up, but I think that's changed.

Casey: We have horticulture, floriculture, we have the sheep and beef businesses.

Tom: And you go up along the Thruway toward Buffalo you see acres and acres, almost miles of things like cabbage, beans, you know, truck farming is a big business in the state. So, you know, there's a lot of agricultural activity in this state, and it's very important that we recognize that the technology's changing. What works today may not work 30 years from now. If they're going to remain successful, and competing in that global marketplace...

Casey: There's more, people buy rural land, to get away from the urban centers and are able to do that work, a bunch of it, from home. Ulysses had an emphasis on, I'm not going to use the right phrase, I can't remember what it is, but shall I say, economic zones surrounding hamlets? In Dryden's terms, that would be villages. Freeville and Dryden. Are they going to be the core of this plan?

Tom: Well, I guess you would naturally focus on the villages, because they have an existing infrastructure that you can build on. That's an important issue. The county came back with, actually, just four comments that were in their terms, "critical," regarding this review, that the town is looking at. One of those being this issue of sewer and water. We had looked at it, the Planning Board, that, you know, the emphasis should be placed on the developer to incorporate the sewer and water and the other utilities as it gets built out and then have it dedicated to the town. Their comment was "wait a minute, Sometimes, if you do that, you're going to end up encouraging a different style of development than you might really be looking for.

So, I think the Town Board's going to take a look at that issue, there's a couple other issues similar to that, but overall, the County Planning Board came back with what I thought was a pretty remarkable attaboy for the Town of Dryden.

Casey: Not bad, not bad.

Tom: Telling us the plan is going to work. One of the other things that was very interesting to me, having grown up in this county, and heard about the Route 13 corridor since I can remember - the reason I remember it so well is, as a kid, one of the proposed changes went right through my great-uncle and grandfather's farms, just split 'em right in half, and you had this corridor going through there. As I made a comment at the Town Board meeting, it's too bad that some of the guys promoting that or folks promoting that at the time didn't stick to their guns. Route 13 today is a real problem.

Casey: Tom Hatfield, my guest...

Casey: Tom's heading out in a couple minutes. So along that line, I think the issue - now we come full circle - back to the getting involved with a number of candidates, but the issue is really the fact that a very small number of people can make a very large difference for the good or for the bad or whatever range you want to call it in between.

Tom: That's exactly right, Casey. I mean, one of the things that makes a local community very near and dear to my heart, whether it be the town, or the county, is that, you know, you can get involved - there's no reason for you not to - and you can particpate. Again, individuals can make a difference here. It's not like you're getting lost in that cauldron of the U.S. population. We're, sometimes I think we all feel a little bit helpless, when we see things going on in Washington that we don't understand, and we don't know, we don't really know how to reach out to it.

But locally, you should know who your county legislator representative is. You should be able to pick up the phone and talk to him or her. You should be able to express to them how unhappy or happy you are with a given issue or a given subject. The thing that saddens me a lot is I don't see that many people energized and concerned about the one environment they can actually influence the most. That's in part what's behind the Coalition for Change. I think we need to get on as many mediums as we can and as many ways as we can and announce to people: "Get engaged. Get involved. More than anything else, go vote in November. Your vote does count. It counts a lot when you get down into local elections."

We've got some of our current legislative folks that have been elected by as few as 290 folks. 290 votes put them in position to control one fifteenth, if you will, the vote that determines how we spent collectively, you know, millions of dollars. It's just amazing. So it really needs our attention, and it needs our focus, and to that extent I enjoy being a part of it, and thank you for the opportunities I get to speak.

Casey: Aw man, I'm glad to have you in here, because I think what you had was that you were surprised by the reaction that people had to the Coalition for Change. You came in non-partisan. Yeah, people say, "Ah, he's a Republican." No, you've been on this program for years saying "Get involved, get involved, get involved," and you honestly are one of the brokers, one of the honest brokers that can say "We have some common things here. We have some things that we love, and there are things that we can work for, and it has nothing to do with party."

Tom: And at the local level, it shouldn't have anything to do with a party, other than we need a party structure to have an exchange of ideas. And you've got to have those brokers or those folks that can go out and say "okay, here's the process. Let's go out and have a good game."

Casey: Well, when you're talking about a comprehensive plan, you may have a couple of people out on the fringe but the reality is that you have someone who is, you have a farmer. You have a business owner. You have a this, that. You don't have a party - you have an occupation. You have an interest.

Tom: And you have citizens. Amongst everything else. And you know, the thing at the root of a lot of the discourse today is that our vision of private property rights is evolving in this country.

Casey: That's true. [laughs]

Tom: Not only is it evolving, but it's evolving in ways that I think are interesting. Our grandparents and the generation before them, they had property, and it was them, and they were isolated. And if they wanted to do something to their house or to their property, it really didn't impact on their neighbors that much. But as we get more urbanized, and parcels get smaller, and you go to a community corner that used to be the point where four farms came togther and you didn't see any houses, you now have four houses on each of those corners, you've got a small community there of say 16-20 homes, what I do in my home does affect my neighbors. It affects their visual, it affects their ability to enjoy their property quietly, and so as that becomes more and more the norm, we have to take into account that we are in fact owners of our own property but what we do on our property does affect our neighbors.

Casey: Tom Hatfield, my guest - he'll be back next month... If you want to write to Tom about the Coalition for Change, you can do email, right?

Tom: Email - the1hat@aol.com... or the old-fashioned way - just Tom Hatfield, PO Box 1107, Dryden, NY 13053.

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