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Friday, June 4, 2010

Village volunteers: appreciated or not?

I've been pondering municipal volunteerism in New Paltz a lot recently, particularly in the village.  A community of this size relies quite a bit upon volunteers.  They run into burning buildings, preserve what's left of our non-human environment, interpret and enforce our laws, and expend a tremendous amount of effort on tasks that are at the same time mind-numbingly dull and critically important.  If you know someone who is volunteering for one of our local governments, please seek them out and thank them for their efforts.

It's getting more difficult to find people to fill the seats of the various boards and commissions in the village, and there are probably several factors for that.  Dual-income households don't have as much spare time for volunteering after job and family obligations are fulfilled.  Not only that, but parents spend far more time shuttling their kids from one activity to another than they once did.  Homeowners, the people who arguably have the most to gain by volunteering, are in a minority in the village.

Mayor Dungan has been working to resolve that last problem with his rental reforms.  The argument as I understand it is that tougher enforcement of safety standards in rentals will make some properties into less attractive investments, which will reduce housing prices for the many apartment residents who wish to own homes.  Likewise, the opening of Woodland Pond may exert some downward pressure on housing prices.  Whether either of these things will come to pass remains to be seen.  The impact on the local volunteer pool, if it does manifest, probably won't be felt for several years.

Troubled waters
In the meantime, there's a dearth of volunteers right now, and I don't think all the reasons are demographic.

At a recent village board meeting, Dr. Thomas Rocco indicated that he was prepared to resign if he didn't get what he wanted for the task force he chairs.  Was this a petulant outburst?  Hardly. Dr. Rocco wanted a survey his task force had spent months preparing to get into the village's water bills. The request had been made originally more than three months ago, but the March bills were sealed before the survey could be inserted.  Three months later, the night before the next round of bills were to be sealed and mailed, Dr. Rocco was utterly frustrated that they were at the same crossroads.  He indicated to the village board in public session that he didn't believe it was a good strategy to leave village volunteers wondering if their efforts were appreciated.

Concurrent to the problems expressed by Dr. Rocco is the resignation of Planning Board chair Ray Curran.  What few may to remember about Mr. Curran is that he was a minority voice for environmentally-sensible development, and that he took the chairmanship reluctantly upon the death of George Danskin.  Since I have never been chairman of that board, I have to wonder if I would have done any better.  Why should a man be expected to put more hours in as a volunteer than he does at his paid job?

The question of the proper funding and support of our firefighters has been discussed ad infinitum.  It seems to be Patrick O'Donnell's sole purpose as a village trustee.  Regardless of your position on the funding question, can you doubt that the firefighters themselves are more than a little disheartened by the whole thing?

I don't think it's just that we have a smaller pool of potential volunteers.  The people who do step up are asked to do too much with too little.  Instead of broad support of volunteers by the municipal government, we see these fine people and their work reduced to pet projects of one or two board members.  Occasionally, such as during this contentious time for the Planning Board, the political will exists to get some level of consensus.  Mostly, though, volunteers are left to sink or swim with little or no support.

9 comments:

allie bern said...

This is completely true. I was a member of the transit sub-committee (sub-committee of the transportation committee) for a few months (I am most likely moving at the end of the summer, so I have stepped down) and there is little support. I am surprised in a village that is so dedicated to environmental issues that public transportation is not a bigger issue. Marji Yablon is co-chair of the committee along with Abe Uchitelle, former Executive Vice President of the Student Association of SUNY New Paltz, and without either of them, nothing would get done. Abe is leaving the committee, and now it all rests on Marji.

How do we get more people on this committee? Or any committee? Many of us care about these issues, I think many are just afraid to make commitments that they may not be able to keep.

Martin McPhillips said...

There's probably a sufficient pool of volunteers for the village boards, committees, and commissions. A lot of people volunteer around town for various things. The village boards et al. are more daunting because there's a public vetting process and there's probably a perception of exclusivity, if that's the right word, in addition to the time commitment.

The situation with the fire department is different and I think unfortunately complicated by what is a classic case of psychological displacement (the transference of anxiety over the abuse of the volunteer department by the state's unwarranted demands onto the village government). So the culture of the department is challenged externally by the demands and also internally by the confusion represented by the displacement.

I would fault the village government and the department equally for not facing the real problem, which is not funding (though more funding would help the department) but the department being used as a nanny-squad to chase down non-emergency calls that are elevated by bureaucrats to emergency status. (Why should a worrking-person who volunteers to fight fires be asked to get out of bed in the middle of the night to respond to a smoke alarm in a dormitory?) I've heard some vague things about getting a more coherent approach to alarms on campus, but I'm not sure what's come of it. And I'm not saying that the campus isn't entitled to emergency fire service. I'm saying that bureaucratic institutionalization of "Boy who cried wolf" is madness.

I also question the dependency, on the part of the Thruway Authority, on local volunteer outfits to handle Thruway emergencies. I don't understand how all that works, but my sense is that the dependency is disproportionate to the Thruway's/state's own responsibility. Again, if I'm not mistaken, this could be more abuse of local community volunteers.

I think that the response of the village (and town) government to this sort of thing, and the response of the department, has been eerily passive. (I admit that I do not understand, for instance, how, if there is one, a statewide organization of volunteer departments responds politically to these demands, if it responds to them at all.)

After that it gets cloudy (and it's cloudy already), but through the clouds I smell political agendas both local and not-local working in the background.

If I was the mayor (and I never ever would be) I would have everyone up and down the line at SUNY, in Albany, etc. furious at me because I simply would not tolerate the abuse of the volunteer fire department. Most of the village board vs. the department conflict is based on displacement from this real issue.

That's all according to my best knowledge and belief.

Brittany Turner said...

Patrick's sole purpose? Hmm... I think he may have had something to do with Planning Board taping, no?

As for the dearth of volunteers, UNIFICATION. There is no other way around it.

Brittany Turner said...

@Allie - glad to see Abe was involved in at least ONE of his assigned committees. Too bad for Landlord/Tenant, though.

Terence said...

I didn't intend to in any way belittle Patrick's work in other areas, simply to highlight how every agenda item is a member item and none of them seem to be COMMUNITY items.

As for unification, which I support: I don't think it will increase the number of available volunteers, and in fact the transition will place a greater strain on that volunteer base. I think the only way unification would solve the volunteer problem is to replace those folks with paid positions, and that type of governmental expansion is what much of the opposition is worried about. I don't think this is a strong argument for one government.

Brittany Turner said...

For most committees/commissions, we have double. Very few are joint. In the Village, there are vacancies on at least 6 (Planning Board, Zoning Board, Ethics, Shade Tree, Public Access, Landlord/Tenant, and I'd argue the Village Board, but I'll overlook it for now).

If those committees were obsolete through merger with Town committees, there probably wouldn't be vacancies - there would probably be actual competition for appointments which, IMHO, is a good thing.

George said...

Two things come to mind, first of which is the stories I've been seeing lately about all the youth sports umpires who are quitting because nutjob parents are sucking all the fun out of it and being physically threatened over a child's game isn't worth fifty bucks. Of course, village boards/committees (usually) take up matters of greater consequence, and putting up with incivility has always been part of the job. But when people are stretched thin by work, family, etc., that might be enough to dissuade them from signing up for community service.

Second, New Paltz's population is largely transient and becoming more so. Students make up half the population, but not half the number of community volunteers. This is not to fault them. Many do volunteer and do lots of things for the broader community. But they've also got their parallel student government and campus projects to deal with. It's just to say that people should stop pretending that it's not an issue. Likewise all the new commuters and second home people. It's not a mystery why so few can/will volunteer.

Peter said...

Now that Patrick O. has resigned, is there any doubt that an administration's leadership can be either an attractive force for volunteers or a repelling force? For myself, I've asked to be part of the Master Plan Review committee and the Consolidation Study Committee. I haven't been contacted for an interview for either committee. Should I stop asking to volunteer for public work in the village? On the town side, I asked to be considered for the Consolidation Study Committee. I'm still waiting for an interview for that committee. Can I stop holding my breath now? And while I was interviewed for the Board of Assessment Review, I was told at the interview itself that there was a "professional" who was likely to be appointed? Is it in the best interests of the public to appoint real estate "professionals" and brokers(both have been appointed to that board recently)to a committee like that? But I digress. Can we talk about 'one municipal government' now?

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