Campaign signs, charges, and counter-charges have been flying in an election campaign in Deerpark for Town board and Town supervisor that has set the town abuzz.
The drama became public when incumbent supervisor and chairman of the Town Republican Party, Gary Spears, along with his running mates Ken Smith, David Dean, and Alan Schock, sent out a series of mailers attacking Democratic opponent Liam O’Neill and his slate.
While on the Town Board, one mailer described O’Neill as an advocate for Dragon Springs, a community of practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual practice in Cuddebackville. The other mailers also seek to make an issue of the community.
O’Neill replied in a letter to Deerpark residents that he did volunteer for Dragon Springs for two years and applauded what Dragon Springs had done for the community, saying, “They employ many (tax-paying) professionals who have brought new energy to our area.”
He said in a phone interview that he never dealt with Dragon Springs as a Town Board member because they only ever came before the zoning and planning boards, so Spears accusation that he advocated for community as a board member was misleading.
“Our team has some indirect connections with Dragon Springs, just as we have ties to the Cuddebackville Fire Department or the Eagle Scouts,” O’Neill wrote in the letter. “What we don’t have is formal affiliation or financial backing. We are endorsed by the Deerpark Democratic Committee.”
Responding to Spears use of Dragon Springs in his campaign material, Dragon Springs President Jonathon Lee said it was unfortunate that the community had been dragged into the political limelight because Dragon Springs, he emphasized, has no political affiliations.
Lee said he told Spears that “his fire should not be targeted at Dragon Springs, because we never wanted to be part of a political campaign.”
He also replied to a flier that said that access to Dragon Springs was “denied to most Deerpark residents,” saying it is a matter of safety.
“Falun Gong is under attack by the Chinese communist government, and there have been numerous attempts to attack us,” he said. “We don’t allow just anyone to come in who doesn’t have business inside. In the future we may make Dragon Springs public. But right now, when we are persecuted, we cannot open up.”
O’Neill said the “hate” and “fear mongering” that his opponents were using against a predominantly ethnic-Chinese community with Buddhist beliefs was not good for the Town.
“Spreading fear and hate about new people, related to Dragon Springs or not, is not an effective way to lead. It only divides and creates mistrust,” he said in the letter.
Shortly after the mailers about Dragon Springs went out, signs popped up around the community saying “Keep Dragon Springs out of Deer Park [sic].”
Lee said it was distressing to see Dragon Springs singled out in such a fashion.
“It incites hatred,” he said.
The signs are white and green, not the color scheme of any candidate in Deerpark; so far their origin is unknown.
Taxes & Flood
Taxes have also been a central part of the political debate that have both sides equally infused.
Republicans charge that O’Neill mismanaged town finances while on the Board from 2006-2009, “resulting in a $1.25 million debt,” one mailer said.
“[He] mismanaged major flooding incidents resulting in costly lawsuits and lost FEMA monies meant to assist flood victims,” it read.
The flooding occurred in April of 2005, displacing more than 1,000 residents and prompting Deerpark officials to call a state of emergency, the United State Geological Survey said in a report
O’Neill said the mismanaged flood monies and resulting lawsuits happened before his time on the Board and that “the damage had already been done.”
O’Neill did say he voted to increase taxes by 125 percent, because it was the only option the Board had at that time to handle the flood damage.
Republican board member Smith in an email characterized the decision to raise taxes as “the easy way out” and praised his colleagues’ work in cutting spending.
O’Neill acknowledged that the current administration has lowered taxes for two of the past five years like they say, but said taxes are even higher now than when he took office in 2006. “So too he [Spears] has had no solutions to lower taxes and no one ever will till we get more commercial development in this town,” O’Neill said.
While O’Neill said Spears’ claim that he has kept taxes stable for five years is true, he said that to really lower taxes there needs to be more business in the Town.
O’Neill said he has plans to bring businesses that will attract professionals who “tend to have nuclear, stable families,” and are generally good, law-abiding citizens. He mentioned a Canadian-based TV and film and production company looking at New Hope Farms in Huguenot that has the potential to bring “an impressive amount of jobs to Deerpark,” he said.
His team, which includes Gail Rachlin, Eric Stein, and Sarah Cook, has also talked to investors who would be interested in opening professional offices in the town, and others who are interested in offering services to seniors, he said.
The Republicans on the other hand tout their conservative fiscal policies and cost-cutting measures as a proven track record that they will safeguard taxpayers money.
“Last year the property taxes only went up approximately $13, an amazing savings,” wrote Smith in an email. “In 2013, 2014 we had a balanced budget. This year, once again thru prudent purchases and cost savings, we have a balanced budget and were able to save our residents 3.1 percent in LOWER property taxes.”
In one of her campaign flyers, Rachlin says the current administration has actively squelched development, giving the example of a blocked $35 million college project that went to Middletown, supposedly referring to Fei Tian College.
In response to that, Smith said he had attended all Town Board meetings and was not aware of the Town turning away any colleges. Smith is on the Town Board but not the Planning or Zoning Boards.
“Not once has any college come to a [Board] meeting, sent a letter to us or seek to come to Deerpark,” he wrote in an email to Epoch Times. “We encourage all businesses to come to our town. We have not turned away anyone.”
While the Republicans did not respond to questions on future development plans, in Spears tentative budget announcement, he touted a new senior center built in the last year and plans to build a police annex in the near future, as well are repaving roads and park upgrades.
Spears’ Property Values
In a campaign postcard, O’Neill charges that while Town taxes have been rising over the last six years, Spears personal property taxes have decreased in that same time period.
Tax records show that Spears home and trailer park, Lakewood Estates, have collectively decreased in their assessed value by 21 percent since 2009.
While assessment alone does not determine taxes, taxes for those two properties have decreased by $45,000 since 2009. O’Neill’s campaign material hints at a correlation between Spears time on the board and his taxes.
“Since Gary joined the Town Board that year, Gary’s property taxes have dropped,” the postcard says.
Spears did not respond to requests for comment.
Battling mailers are not the only way this race is playing out. O’Neill recently filed a police report alleging that an estimated $2,500 in yard signs have gone missing or been damaged.
“Many of our lawn signs have been displaced and discarded in woods and approximately 200 of these have been destroyed (slashed),” he wrote in an email to the media.
Rachlin said on Oct. 18 alone 39 campaign signs for the Democrats went missing.
One of O’Neil’s supporters, a 13-year resident, reported three signs going missing from her property in broad daylight.
“It’s not the fact that they took the signs, it’s the fact that they came on my property,” said Gail Cornelius, who reported the incident to the police.
An eyewitness or video is what police would need to pursue such theft as a larceny, said Deerpark Police Chief Richard Sztyndor. He said only a few police reports about political signs have been made so far this year.
Republican signs have been taken as well.
Smith said he had six signs taken as of Oct. 19, and Tom Faggione, who is running for County legislator representing Mount Hope, Deerpark, and Port Jervis, said 12 of his were missing as of then as well.
Former democratic supervisor, Mark House, said sign-taking is common during elections. He had signs taken when he was running, he said, although “not a huge number.”
The concern over the signs will go away shortly after the elections, but the divisions that this race has brought out in the community will take longer to heal.
Cornelius said she was told to “leave town” and “we don’t want you here” on Facebook after she posted something on the Democrats “Deerpark We Care” Facebook page.
“I thought, ‘I’m not going to make any sense with these people, they’re just set in their ways,'” she said about her decision not to respond.
Viola Sinsabaugh, who served as a Republican on the Town Board with O’Neill, said she is tired of the political “mudslinging,” especially from the Republicans. She said it is taking away from the real issues that need to be addressed.
“It doesn’t matter what party you’re in, it matters what you are going to do for the community,” she said.
Nov. 3 is Election Day and after that, whoever is elected will face the challenge of bringing harmony to a community at odds with itself.
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