José Berra Runs Again for North Castle’s Town Board
October 20, 2015 José Berra was unanimously appointed to North Castle's Town Board in 2014 for a year when Michael Schiliro was elected Supervisor and had to vacate his seat on the Board. But last November, when Berra ran for the seat’s remaining one-year term in a special election, he lost by only 22 votes out of approximately 3,700 ballots cast.
Berra is now campaigning to reclaim that seat in the November 3 election. He says, “Being a member of the Town Board has been one of the most personally fulfilling and gratifying things I've done." He hopes to build on his past experience on the Board and to have the opportunity to further dedicate himself to the Town. He says, “I relished being on the Town Board, and want to return so I can have a greater positive impact on the amazing Town that has been my home for over a quarter of a century.”
Berra started his professional career as a certified public accountant. He then went to the University of Chicago Law School and became a tax lawyer in Manhattan. He left the private sector briefly to gain government experience at the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, where he worked on tax policy. He returned to the private sector to pursue a business career in corporate finance, but several years ago he returned to the practice of law, advising clients on income taxes, business and financial transactions, and litigation strategy.
Given his background creating and drafting income tax statutes and regulations for the United States Treasury, Berra has experience anticipating possible loopholes and figuring out how to close them to prevent anyone from rigging the financial system. He likens the approach he uses to a challenging chess game where you have to anticipate what your opponent may do and think many moves ahead. He points out, however, that figuring out solutions was only part of his job at the Treasury. It was also necessary to draft tax rules in as clear, concise and simple a manner as possible.
Berra is proud of the clarity of his tax rules, although he readily admits that clarity, conciseness and simplicity are relative terms when it comes to the income tax laws. “I’ve written some key regulations, and placed great emphasis on making them as clear as possible because, from my prior experience as a tax lawyer, I knew how frustrating it could be for tax professionals and their clients to have to spend countless hours trying to decipher regulations and other tax rules only to conclude that ultimately they did not provide a clear enough answer.”
Berra says, “The skills I refined at the Treasury Department have become deeply ingrained in me and have been invaluable in nearly everything I have done since.” He says he is a problem solver who is able to tackle many different issues and is comfortable doing so with all sorts of people.
Berra’s Stand on Local Issues
Berra’s background can be useful in spotting subtle, yet important, issues. One example is the Community Benefits Agreement that the Town of North Castle recently entered into with Brynwood Partners, LLC, which obligates Brynwood to contribute over $1 million to multiple town projects over a period of time tied to certain milestones, such as the town is granting the first building permit. The agreement also requires Brynwood to drop its certiorari proceedings regarding back property taxes paid to the Town.
Berra commends Town Attorney Roland Baroni for doing a great job negotiating the agreement, especially a provision that requires Brynwood, if it transfers the property to an entity that is not an affiliate, to immediately pay the Town amounts that otherwise would be deferred. Drawing on his past experience when the agreement was being considered at a recent Town Board meeting, Berra said that there was a potential loophole in the agreement that could allow Brynwood to sell its property to a non-affiliate without making the immediate payment that was intended under the agreement, and the agreement that was ultimately signed reflected Berra’s comment.
Last year, when Berra was on the Town Board, an application for condominiums at Armonk's former lumberyard came before the Board. The project included affordable housing. Berra expressed serious concerns that if approved, the Town would be getting too little back from the developer in exchange for the density bonus and preferential condominium tax treatment that the developer sought. Berra was the only Board member to vote against the proposal. Later, when the Board took another look at the application and it became clear that the rest of the Board would vote again in favor of approving and allowing the condominiums, Berra voiced his opposition and abstained.
Berra believes that the lower tax rates that apply when the Town Board grants a development condominium status is unfair to the vast majority of North Castle taxpayers who pay property taxes at the normal fee simple tax rates, which are approximately double the rates at which condominiums of equivalent value are taxed. But he concedes that there may be some situations with compelling reasons for granting the preferential condominium property taxation. For example, he believes that it’s important to retain seniors and that it could make sense to have an exception for age-restricted housing so that seniors can benefit from lower condominium taxation.
When asked about other issues, Berra says "There's more I want to do to help the Town and to make a difference,” including accelerating the pace, at which the majority of the Town's roads are repaired to approximately three years, which he says should reduce the overall cost of the repair work. He says a detailed, public timetable for roadwork is essential to do a job in the most economically efficient way and to let residents know what to expect.
Another town priority is parking in downtown Armonk. Berra says that when he was on the Board, discussions began to expand the Hergenhan Recreation Center parking lot to add parking for long-term employees, which would free up the existing parking for patrons of shops on Main Street and in Armonk Square.
Berra describes himself as a “fiscal conservative who strongly believes in making capital investments that more than pay for themselves with proven savings. Recent technological advances are increasingly making this possible.” For example, he says there are solar energy companies that will pay the cost of installing solar panels and related equipment on buildings with good exposure to the sun. In return for this roof access, they sell the energy that is generated to the building owner at reduced rates, and this approach could save the town money without the need for any out-of-pocket capital investment. “There’s no capital investment for the Town in this case,” Berra says, “and the Town gets to pay less for its electricity.”
Berra also says that “there’s a whole range of sustainability solutions that could save the Town money in the future.” For example, further down the road, solar energy might even be used to power the energy-hungry computers and other electronic equipment in North Castle police cars, some of which must be parked with their engines running to keep their batteries charged so that a fully booted-up police car is immediately available for an emergency call. Not only would solar energy allow the town to save money on gasoline, it would reduce the destructive wear and tear that results from excessive idling and thereby could reduce maintenance costs for the police car fleet and extend the fleet’s useful life.
“Just as poor decisions can have a bad snowball effect, good investment decisions can also snowball, but in a good way,” Berra says. Berra would explore using some cost savings to fund further capital investments that would save the Town additional money. One ideal benefit of any cost savings would be to erect a building to house and repair Highway Department trucks, some costing over $200,000, that currently are parked outside. Storing the trucks indoors could greatly reduce the premature wear that currently results from their being exposed to the elements year-round.
One of the first times Berra became involved in a significant town project was about 15 years ago, when he worked with his neighbor, Karl Hinrichs, to bring sewer lines to their neighborhood. They worked with Supervisor Jack Lombardi; the Town’s engineer; the Town’s lawyer; the water and sewer departments; the highway department; and their neighbors to get the job done. Berra says that experience “was an excellent example of the great results that can be achieved when Town residents and Town employees work together. As I’ve gotten to know many more people in town,” Berra says, “it has become crystal clear to me that our people are our greatest resource.”
November 1, 2015 Guy Mezzancello wants to serve four more years as a North Castle town councilman. A large group of supporters showed up at Fortina’s during the last week of campaigning.
Town Board member Barbara DiGiacinto said, “This is an incredible turnout on a Tuesday night when the Mets are playing the first game of the World Series. It’s a real testimony to the support for Guy when we have just seven days to election day.”
“I’m on my game,” says Mezzancello. “I look forward to another four years when there will be a big push on my end to get a lot of things done. The first year, I listened and learned. But now I’m ready to move forward and I’m looking forward to it.”
Michael Mezzancello, who is the middle of the Mezzancello sons, was asked if he saw a change in his dad. He said, “Yes, he’s really excited to be doing something worthwhile for everyone.”
Tony Baratta, co-chairman of the Armonk Lions’ annual Fol De Rol and a life-long Democrat, said that local politics is not about political parties. “It’s about working for your neighbor, caring and making sure things go the right way.” Having met Guy 18 years ago through the Armonk Baseball League, Barrata continued, “He coached my kids and was a wonderful mentor. He’s a great asset to the town. He’s a caring individual who does things for the town and never asks for credit.”
Gail Lombardi, a North Castle Republican District Leader, said that Guy is personable. “He is involved in community service and does a lot with the kids and sports, as well as the Frosty Day event. Anytime that anybody needs something electrical, they call on him and he responds.”
Another Republican District Leader Sharon Tomback said that Guy brings a business owner's perspective to the Town Board. “He knows how to meet a payroll and to worry about the bottom line. That’s something that is needed on the Town Board. He was unanimously endorsed by the North Castle Republican Town Committee.”
Anita Cozza, chair of the North Castle Republican Town Committee, said of Mezzacello, “It pleases me to see the amount of people who have turned out to support Guy. He has done a fantastic job this last year he has been on the Town Board. He has shown leadership and perseverance in various areas of town government. It’s nice to see that people recognize this and are willing to give him a second chance for a four-year term."
Guy Mezzancello Stands for Re-election to the North Castle Town Board
October 28, 2015 North Castle residents might remember that Guy Mezzancello’s victory last year was notable in its margin of victory – winning by only 22 votes over his opponent. This time three parties have thrown their support behind him. Running for a full four-year term, he was unanimously endorsed by the Republicans for re-election, as well as the Conservative and Reform parties.
Prior to serving on the North Castle Town Board, Mezzancello served on the North Castle Planning Board for four years. “I’m proud of what we accomplished on the Planning Board,” said Mezzancello. “I supported the development of the old A&P Supermarket property and to clean up the property on what-is-now Armonk Square. We now have a new CVS Pharmacy, a new DeCicco’s & Sons grocery, better parking, new sidewalks – all beautiful additions to Armonk. I have seen some of those efforts materialize now that I’m on the Town Board,” Mezzancello continued. “I’m proud that Brynwood Golf Community is coming on line with eight units of affordable housing.”
As a long-time community volunteer and successful businessman, Mezzancello appreciates fiduciary responsibility by public officials. “I’m concerned about our seniors in town and I believe that the tax rate is hurting them. I think that we must build our assessable tax rates , and look ahead for the next 20 years to maintain our tax base.
“I believe we should talk to the school, county and state officials to see whether something can be done to help our seniors,” Mezzancello continued. “Let’s take it beyond the STAR Program and see what the town can do to help our seniors who are on the brink.
Even though the Town Board works very hard to contain its portion of the tax bill, we must remember that the town taxes account for only about 17% of the property taxes we pay.
While the Town Board cannot contain the school and county portions of our tax bills which amount to about 83% of the property taxes we pay, we can see how we can help seniors with the other 17%. We can look at future opportunities as we put together the revised Comprehensive Plan for the Town of North Castle.”
Mezzancello was appointed Town Board Liaison for the Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee, which is revising the previous Master Plan developed 20 years ago. “We need to adapt it today’s needs. We are examining what worked in that plan and what needs to be updated. Are our residents pleased? Can we do more? It will take some time, but the committee is working hard. Each of North Castle’s three hamlets has specific and different needs. Our goal is to have our residents help us make quality-of-life plans that benefit all the residents, including seniors.”
Mezzancello has outlined his plans for each hamlet, but he believes that North White Plains has particular items that need attention – and action. “North White Plains is mostly residential with smaller parcels. Residents have been asking for help with the NYS Route 22 traffic, the ‘Broadway Corridor’ that splits North White Plains,” noted Mezzancello. “As part of the Comprehensive Plan, we can look at redirecting commuter traffic. For example, rather than only having the traffic flow out to Route 22 from the North White Plains Metro parking area, we could have all of that traffic directed to the Bronx River Parkway. Residents have been asking for that for 25 years. Let’s do something now.”
Mezzancello has another idea for North White Plains that “helps the residents and also plans for the long-term as well. Under discussion is the installation of LED lighting along North Broadway for the sidewalks. It could make it more attractive for businesses and encourage them to fix up and invest in the commercial district. We need to investigate the tax advantages to those businessmen willing to make such an investment. Right now if an owner improves his property, that property is reassessed for higher taxes. I love North White Plains; sidewalks and uniform lighting would make a dramatic difference.”
Mezzancello’s brief tenure on the Town Board belies his decades-long involvement in North Castle, whether through the Armonk Baseball League, the Byram Hills School District which his three sons attended, or assisting the Parks and Recreation Department with the annual lighting in Wampus Brook Park. Those snowflakes in the trees wouldn’t happen without the help of Guy Mezzancello. He modestly admits, “I’m a doer and I want to get things done.”
When asked about his first year on the Town Board, Mezzancello remarked, “I believe my strongest asset is to offer residents my ability to listen, negotiate and resolve concerns. My work background, experience and accumulated knowledge enable me to advise other Town Board members. Managing employees, meeting payroll, negotiating, coordinating and implementing work projects, all contribute to my capacity to be a strong member of the North Castle team.”
He added another insight, “Town government is like private business in some respects; there’s always the concern for the residents and doing what’s best for all.” Mezzancello said that service on the Town Board does have its challenges. “There are work sessions, public hearings, and opportunities for everyone to be heard. Hearing, listening and answering those concerns takes time.”
As part of that process, Mezzancello would like to encourage North Castle’s corporate CEOs to network with other corporate heads. “Maybe those corporate leaders can facilitate other companies who would want to relocate to North Castle. For example, such networking could help to fill in the void created at the former MBIA property.”
When asked about the subject of affordable housing, he said that the Town of North Castle had no choice but to comply with Westchester County’s affordable housing settlement. “This is new to us. But, if we don’t build the units according to our wishes, then Westchester County will do it for us. It is better for North Castle to maintain control over its zoning. My years on the planning board taught me that.”
Finally, Mezzancello addressed one of the biggest issues for North Castle residents: reclaiming and rebuilding town roads. “While it’s also a major monetary concern, I want to get our roads done and done fast with a three-year plan. I know construction. Supervisor Schiliro has asked me to get involved with the Road Improvements and Maintenance Task Force. I am honored and look forward to advising and offering my expertise. North Castle will most likely borrow the money to finance the project while the rates are low. The updated engineering report will indicate the condition of all roads in the town and determine the schedule of the repairs and rebuilds.”
While approximately $1 million is budgeted annually to maintain the roads, he said, “Again, I understand why the process takes so long, but it is just as frustrating to me as it is to other North Castle residents.”
Mezzancello then added, “I hope the voters of North Castle agree and re-elect me on November 3.”
Stephen D’Angelo Seeks Re-election to North Castle Town Board
October 31, 2015 Stephen D’Angelo won his first election to the North Castle Town Board four years ago. He not only sits as a councilman on the board, but also as Deputy Supervisor, appointed by Supervisor Michael Schiliro soon after his election to that position two years ago. This time, on Westchester County's November 3, 2015 General Election Ballot, D’Angelo appears on five party lines: Democratic, Republican, Conservative, Independence and Reform.
All About Armonk interviewed D’Angelo recently about his stand on important North Castle issues. He says, “If the people like what I do, they will re-elect me.”
AAA: Home values are a major concern of North Castle’s residents. What responsibilities does the Town Board have to keep people's largest financial asset valuable?
SD: It’s a major job. What makes North Castle a place where people want to live and to pay the prices for homes are the Byram Hills and Valhalla school districts. The value of the homes, when compared to your children’s education, is good.
It’s a battle now, especially with the mandated tax cap. But the Town Board has to provide the services while keeping the tax rates as low as possible in order to keep North Castle a place where people want to live, and a place where people from out of town want to do business.
In the last two years, we have been active in trying to stay on top of road improvements. If the roads are in good shape, that helps with home values; however, if the roads are potholed, you won’t want to live there. We have to find a way to do more with less, with the goal of increasing services such as road repair.
AAA: Taxes are another concern for North Castle residents. How do you propose to increase the assessable tax rate to maintain the town's growing budget with the anticipated millions of dollars in costs for road repair, and the mandated state costs, while maintaining a minimal, if any, tax increase?
SD: This year we are projecting not to exceed a .73 percent increase of the tax levy over last year.
The Town Board negotiated all the contracts last year with new, lower base starting salary levels. In the case of the Highway Department and Water Department, the new starting salaries are almost $20,000 lower than before, enabling us to hire more people at the same amount of money or the same amount of people for less money. This way we get new people in, save some money, and get the job done a little bit cheaper.
The last two years, we have pulled about $1 million out of the General Fund Balance to repair roads. Continuing with this, we’ll be able to include the repair of the roads in the entire Windmill Farm Water District, which by this time next year, will be completely redone. This will happen, along with other roads in town that will be redone by using the General Fund Balance, the budgeting process and bonding with interest rates being low, all while maintaining the budget below the tax cap.
We’ve approved a number of projects over the last couple of years. Brynwood will bring a tremendous assessable rate onto the tax rolls in four-to-five years when it’s all done. Accordingly, we anticipate the levy and assessable to go up, while the actual tax rate that people pay to go down.
There are a number of other projects out there. For instance, the senior housing on Route 128. When that’s built, it will be 14 to 16 units of newly assessable property. There’s also the lumberyard with a mix of 35 market rate and affordable units. There’s another Madonna property off Main Street that will be taken from a single house to anywhere from four-to-six homes.
But the biggest part of the assessable income is getting people to buy houses and to improve them. Home improvement is a big key as to why over the last five-to-six years, the assessables have gone down. People have not been working on home improvements such as redoing kitchens or putting on a deck.
Also part of the Brynwood agreement was that certiorari proceedings be dropped and the property value was reduced for 2015 and 2016 tax period.
The economy is getting better, which causes the tax certiorari proceedings, or amount of people contesting their taxes, to go down. When the real estate market was down in the period of time from 2008 to 2012, people protested. We had no choice but to reduce the assessments and that hurt the tax base.
AAA: Open space has always been a desirable characteristic of North Castle. How do you propose to balance future development while maintaining open space?
SD: It’s not easy. There has to be open space. It’s hard to tell people what to do with their property, but we have to find a way to protect the environment because open space is important. Trees came down in Wampus Brook Park South and we have taken advantage of that by turning the property into a park, even though it’s taking forever, but that’s how government works.
We have these larger parcels, such as Madonna’s 10-acres on top of the hill on Route 128. He could try to rezone that into one-acre lots for ten houses, but we don’t want to see that. There is a balance between open space and development that is more geared toward Armonk than North White Plains because North White Plains is more congested and there are small pieces of property, yet they need open space there too.
Upcoming, there’s some work that will be done with Westchester County at the parking lot of Betsy Sluder Preserve on Old Route 22. Also, last year, North Castle donated $75,000 towards the purchase of open space in the Bedford part of North Castle at the Mianus Gorge area.
AAA: What are some of the issues for North White Plains? And are their solutions?
SD: One of the biggest issues during rush hour, and has been since they closed the Kensico Dam bypass road, is traffic. North Broadway and that part of town is a commercial area. Town Board member Barbara DiGiacinto, Senator George Latimer and I took a bus tour last month before they opened up the new parking garage that added 500 parking spaces at North White Plains Metro North Station (on Haarlem Avenue). We tried to figure out how to get the traffic flow off of North Broadway and onto the Bronx River Parkway or onto the Taconic Parkway. Most of those people are coming from up north and using the parking lots at North White Plains train station to commute to the City. It’s one of the most convenient stations to get to from Grand Central Station [because of the number of express trains]. People prefer to drive 15 minutes rather than sit on the train for 20 minutes making all those additional stops. Without the Kensico Dam cut through, everyone is now going down Virginia Road, and North Broadway. This conjestion causes rush hour traffic. Is there a better way to do it? There are plans to make the road wider there, but that keeps on being delayed.
We are trying to work with the citizens of North White Plains to make their lives better. Barbara DiGiacinto holds monthly meetings that I try to attend every other month. The people let us know what they want; we have to find a way to incorporate that into the law so that it’s fair for everybody.
Parking in the residential areas is also a big issue in North White Plains. There’s a challenge to keep the roads free of snow and cleared for emergency vehicles. We’ve proposed putting in a couple of "no parking zones" because, if vehicles are parked on both sides of the roads, the emergency vehicles can’t travel through the streets. We’ve allowed the residents to add another 250 feet of pavement to park their cars off the road. But whether they are owners or tenants, there are more people, in bigger houses, on smaller property. For snow removal, perhaps alternate side of the street parking should be considered.
We’re also trying to upgrade the North White Plains’ North Castle Community Center and turn that into an emergency shelter if there is another big storm so there will be a place in North White Plains for residents to go.
AAA: How important is a commercial hub in the Banksville hamlet?
SD: I don’t think they want a big commercial hub in their neighborhood. A store or two would probably be nice. But the biggest problem is just over the border with Greenwich where there was a true commercial hub with a supermarket in the shopping center, but that closed. That was convenient for Banksville residents even though North Castle had nothing to do with that property. Most residents of Banksville, I assume, now shop in Armonk, go to Greenwich or into Bedford.
The Town Board worked on Bankville’s zoning issue two years ago. Everybody seemed satisfied that we had a resolution.
Nevertheless, there is a planning issue with one commercial property there now. In the past, when we had a problem, we got the people together who were involved to work out a satisfactory solution. However, finding a solution may take time because, with the open meetings law, we can’t do things in private. We hold public meetings twice a month. So every two weeks changes are made, but that causes a delay.
AAA: With the arrival of Armonk Square, parking in Armonk continues to be an issue. What can be done? If you are re-elected, can we expect any improvements in Armonk’s downtown parking during your next term? If so, what?
SD: It’s a good problem to have because people are coming to Armonk. But parking comes down to space and money, the two things we don’t have a lot of. We are getting closer to putting more parking behind Hergenhan Recreation Center. There will be anywhere between 20-to-40 spaces, depending upon cost. How that will be paid for is in discussion.
Armonk Square’s store owners are working to get the employees out of the Armonk Square’s parking lot and into outside parking lots such as the 25 parking-space gravel lot adjacent to the Hergenhan Recreation Center. People were using the Armonk Square parking lot to carpool to North White Plains train station. Business owners were parking in the lot all day. The one-hour parking enforcement has addressed that. And people aren’t complaining as much about the parking as when Armonk Square first opened. Perhaps people have a better understanding of when is the best time of day to come to Armonk.
Where do we have space to put a parking lot without tearing down buildings? Behind Kent Place is another area we’re looking at.
AAA: What's your proudest accomplishment/s over the past four years as a town board member?
SD: I can’t point to one particular thing that I’ve accomplished. But I am happy to say that in the last four years, I’ve worked hard for the town, especially over the last two years when we have taken the town from a contentious town board and turned it into a board that people can say, ‘Here’s the way to get projects approved; here's how to work with the developers and to meet the needs of the town.’ I am proud when people say, ‘Those are the people I want running my town.’ I want to keep doing that for four more years.