By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO A packed village hall listened as Monticello residents and officials debated the merits of aesthetic lighting along Broadway.
Village Attorney Jacob Billig’s admonishment to refrain from back-and-forth arguments was partially heeded, but the depth of sentiment on both sides of the issue was plainly evident.
Trustee Carmen Rue kicked off the discussion by making a motion to amend the evening’s agenda to include a resolution to send a letter to the state Department of Transportation asking the 64 aesthetic lights be restored to the coming Broadway reconstruction project.
Trustee Victor Marinello, who shares Rue’s outrage over Village Manager John Barbarite’s June letter to the DOT asking that the lights be removed, seconded the motion.
But Mayor Gordon Jenkins and trustees Scott Schoonmaker and TC Hutchins were not ready to make that decision at that time, and the motion failed.
Marinello said he wanted some discussion on the matter, but instead of the board, the public stepped in to offer their views.
Resident Betty Friedland chided Jenkins for calling Marinello “useless” in a recent Democrat article and also disagreed with Barbarite’s contention that people feel Broadway is overlit.
But when she asked for further explanation of officials’ reasoning regarding the lights, Billig responded about the overall project rather than the lights themselves.
“The project is not delayed,” he said, referring to the DOT’s recent decision to rebid Broadway’s reconstruction.
That rebidding became necessary when Billig wrote a letter to the DOT informing them that there was no outstanding property rights issue with Broadway’s sidewalks.
Once the DOT could confirm it would not run into endless litigation over whether the sidewalks are publicly or privately owned, the project became eligible for 80 percent federal funding (rather than the state covering the whole amount).
But such a financial setup required tossing out the old bids, which were just about to be awarded, and rebidding the project, which is now set to begin in late spring or summer of next year.
Billig’s contention that the project was not actually delayed is based on the expectation that the state would not have started work on the project as winter is setting in.
He did eventually touch on the lights, affirming that the board, through Barbarite, has the power to request changes to the project.
DOT officials have indicated that, unless the village administration decides to add the lights back into the project by the end of this month, the DOT will move forward with only a landscaped median.
County Legislator Alan Sorensen, who shares representation of the village with Legislator Ron Hiatt, advocated for the lights as “an intricate part of that streetscape.”
Schoonmaker asked what Sorensen could do to ensure the $5,000-$10,000 annual estimated maintenance cost would be covered in the financially struggling village.
Though Sorensen said the county has long worked with the village, he anticipated the revitalization of Broadway would add enough to the village’s coffers to cover such costs.
Sean Rieber, who owns or has an interest in six Broadway properties, wondered why downtown merchants weren’t approached about helping defray costs, perhaps through a special lighting district.
“More light is only going to deter crime even more,” he remarked, adding that the lights would improve Broadway’s aesthetics.
Jenkins responded to both men that they should watch the slide show at the end of the meeting and think about what they just said.
“Where were you when we needed you to fix up some of these things that we’re going to talk about in this slide [show],” he remarked. “But all of a sudden you show up for some lighting in this village.”
Hiatt then spoke, also in favor of the lights.
“If you make Monticello the kind of place where people want to be, then people will come,” he said.
Resident Thomas Mack told the legislators that village officials had done their homework and should have been called by county officials rather than legislators attending a public meeting and making village leaders “look like they’re not doing their jobs.”
“Get on the telephone!” he said. “Come in and talk to them!”
He agreed that the costs of maintaining the lights would be difficult in the current economic climate.
Then it was Marinello’s turn.
“These lights were deleted without the authorization of the village board,” he stated, referring to the lack of an official vote. (Barbarite wrote the lights-removal letter after consulting with a majority of the board, who informally gave him the go-ahead.)
Marinello claimed the current lighting system is inefficient and that Broadway looks rough, and he questioned the veracity of the figures quoted regarding the maintenance expenses of the aesthetic lights.
“We have a village ... that is falling apart,” he stated. “... We need to rebuild the Village of Monticello.”
He opted not to respond to Jenkins’ statements in the Democrat, saying he did not want to get personal.
Rue agreed that two official resolutions voted upon earlier in the year approving the lights still stood and advocated for a letter to the DOT to restore lighting she felt would beautify the downtown area.
Schoonmaker then offered comment, saying there was much people didn’t understand.
For one, he argued that the DOT’s promise to install $896,000 worth of aesthetic lighting did not constitute a grant or even a guarantee that it would be installed.
He claimed that “duplicate” lighting would likely have to be dismantled at the village’s cost, though he acknowledged the new aesthetic lights would generate a relatively low light level, consuming about 70 watts.
“It’s not about money,” he remarked. “... There are other issues that need to be addressed ... before we go into this.”
Those issues were not clearly delineated at the meeting, but Barbarite indicated it does indeed have to do with money.
“First of all I have to tell you I agree with a lot of what the people said about how we have to improve how Monticello looks if we expect to bring new businesses and attract investment,” he said.
“I’ve been talking about this for over 25 years,” he added, listing prior mayors like Lou Harmin, John Diuguid, Bob Friedland, Jim Kenny and Jim Barnicle. “And it fell on deaf ears. They never recognized the need to improve our infrastructure. There was a lot of talk, and all we heard for many years was that the village never had the money to do what needed to be done.”
He presented a slide show of about two dozen images showing tree stumps, rusting signs, potholes, ditches, weeds, puddles and unsightly buildings throughout Monticello.
“When people come into the village, this is what they see,” Barbarite said.
The photos, he admitted, were 20 years old, but there was general recognition that many of these problems still exist.
Calling the current state of disrepair a “much more powerful disincentive to come to the Village of Monticello,” Barbarite argued that money would be better spent on cleaning up the existing infrastructure before adding new elements like aesthetic lighting.
“I think we have to look very carefully where we invest the money we collect from taxes,” he said.
Marc Hudes, a Broadway podiatrist who was active in the group that took the 1989 photos, argued that the lights could be part of that improvement.
Calling Hudes’ comments “beautiful,” Jenkins replied that he wished Hudes and company would come all the time to meetings rather than for “their own agenda with the lighting.”
“You’re telling me decorative lighting is going to change the village?” the mayor asked incredulously.
“I think everyone here can agree on one thing,” proffered Waverly Avenue junkyard owner David Turick. “The place is definitely in bad shape, to say the least.”
Identifying the problem as funding, he recommended people work together to pay for what they wanted to see in the village.