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Uniters, not dividers: the towns evolve 

Is "bi-lithic" a word?

            The play on "monolithic" may not be in the dictionary, but it should be available for this year's elections. The word would neatly describe the city-versus-suburb dynamic that undergirds various contests --- county executive, district attorney, and even some town supervisors --- making this locality appear like two stone fortresses facing each other across a moat-full of issues. The imaginary fortresses tell the insecure voter, Don't mess with the status quo... Don't tamper with the jurisdictional lines.

            The image is unreal, but it's strong enough to bury some significant communitywide issues, or almost worse, make them appear parochial. That's a shame, since these are they very items voters should have on their mental to-do list when they step into the voting booth.

            Full treatment of these issues --- call them "uniters, not dividers" --- would fill volumes. But here are three that are emblematic of what Monroe County is facing today. And they're not in the city of Rochester but in its diverse and increasingly challenged suburbs.

1. Safety: where the school bus and sidewalk hit the road.

            Like most school districts around here, Greece Central has long had a pretty comprehensive busing policy. This is vital for the youngest kids. "Bus service is provided for all students in pre-kindergarten through second grade regardless of proximity to school," says a manual for parents. Kids in the higher grades haven't had this guaranteed door-to-door service, but they've been required to walk relatively short distances to their bus stops.

            But now things are changing, spurred by tax-weary Greece residents who last spring voted down the 2003-2004 school budget. "For the second straight year, the Greece Central School District is operating under a contingency budget," says a district statement. "As a result," the statement continues, "some electives will not be offered and class sizes will increase this September."

            It wasn't just the classrooms that took a hit. By a vote of 6,986 to 4,941, residents nixed a proposal to use $800,000 to "eliminate proposed centralized bus stops." Lacking the money, district officials decreased the number of stops; now many students must walk longer distances to where they board their bus. That may not be such a big deal for most of the older students. But some very young students now must walk up to 800 feet to their bus stop, instead of being taken door-to-door. This is significant for some students and their caregivers alike, especially when there's no sidewalk.

            The austerity measure has mobilized parents and advocates. Some of them gathered at a Dewey Avenue church September 23 for "a straight talk session" on "the safety of Greece children." Linda Podewils, CEO of LP Educational Associates, a child care provider and training firm, helped organize the event. She says the group, not yet named, "will continue to look at the district's practice of punishing parents because [the voters] voted down a budget."

            Podewils, who used to teach school in Oswego, has a personal investment. "I have grandchildren now walking on Stone Road," she says. "Most of it doesn't have sidewalks. It's unconscionable. They took 20 buses off the road." She charges that interacting with the district "is like working with a toddler."

            Greece school board member Gerald Phelan says the busing issue has prompted an outpouring of concern. "We had over 300 people at the September 9 board meeting," he says. There wasn't enough space in the room for those who showed up, he says --- nor was there an opportunity for them to speak.

            Around 150 people came to the September 23 citizens' meeting, says Phelan, who was the Greece police chief for 20 years. The citizens, he says, are "passing a petition now requesting, not demanding, a special meeting to discuss this issue." He says the accent will be on civility. But some of the stories he tells are emotion-laden --- like one about a mother who must negotiate a busy, sidewalk-free roadway with two elementary kids in tow, one of them in a wheelchair.

            "I'm not interested in blaming transportation" or anyone else, says Phelan. But he calls attention to an irony: Part of Stone Road now has no sidewalks, posing a problem for some students. But the sidewalks were there until the road started undergoing reconstruction.

            Road construction and school transportation are separate bailiwicks under different governmental units, of course. You could say the kids are walking in the space between them.

2. Demographics and diversity. People are on the move within the Monroe County suburbs, and they're making a political dent, even if the communities don't realize it.

            They're not moving at the same rate everywhere. Some parts of the county qualify for the unofficial designation "lily-white." Not to single any place out for opprobrium: But according to the 2000 census, the town of Riga is 97.3 percent white, 0.7 percent black, 0.7 percent Asian, and 0.9 percent "Hispanic or Latino of any race." The percentage of black people in the town translates to 39 individuals out of a total population of 5,437.

            But just down the road is the town of Sweden, where things are different, largely because Sweden includes the village of Brockport. Sweden's population (13,176 total) is 92.6 percent white. This is off-white instead of lily-white, you might say. But the data indicate there's room in Sweden for blacks (3.7 percent; 510 individuals), Latinos (2.9 percent; 395 individuals), and smaller percentages of other non-White groups.

            It may be the arrival of Latinos that's the biggest item on western Monroe County's census map. Until relatively recently, the Latino presence in the county's "farm belt" was seasonal. Migrant farmworkers, mostly from Mexico, came to pick various crops in succession. The phenomenon has long been central to the county's rural economy. But now, as the census shows, more families are actually settling in the area. This spillover effect from seasonal migrations will surely become more significant in local politics as time goes on.

            The Latino presence in western Monroe County is bigger than the census indicates. Bill Abom, Brockport-based coordinator of the Rural and Migrant Ministry's Western New York office, says there may be a 50 percent undercount, largely because undocumented immigrants aren't included. He points to a decided Latino influence in town. "Catholic Spanish masses are starting to grow" in the community's Roman Catholic churches, he says. He recommends taking a Sunday afternoon walk down Brockport's Main Street to feel the Latino cultural presence. But it's a soccer league, he says, that's probably the largest Latino organization in the area.

            Sweden residents and institutions have a mixed record in coming to terms with this set of changes, according to Barbara Deming, a Sweden resident who's a board member with the statewide Rural and Migrant Ministry. "People are aware of the migrants but not of those who have settled out," she says. "There are big gaps" in public awareness, she says. "The Hispanic population has not come onto their radar screen."

            Deming notes that at this year's Bienvenida --- an annual festival meant to welcome migrants back to the area and support those who've settled here --- officials from the village of Brockport and the town of Hamlin were on hand with proclamations. But through some kind of mix-up, she says, the town of Sweden was not represented. "That's kind of like moving the wrong way," she says.

            "The retail people are starting are starting to be sensitive," Deming says, noting for example the Latino foods available in local markets. But Latinos, she says, "are way below the radar" for most western Monroe County politicians. She names a notable exception, the supervisor of a neighboring town: "Austin Warner up in Hamlin has just been terrific," she says. Warner, she says, was the key person in bringing the Latino soccer league to a public park behind the Hamlin town hall. And the soccer games there, she says, are some of the area's largest Latino gatherings.

3. Recreation: shrinking opportunities, longer travel time.

            This subject might seem trivial, but it's subsumed under some critical questions: What access will people have to the commons, the public domain, and where will they be able to exercise this natural right? And how will local governments deal with this and pay for it?

            Look at what's happening in Webster, one of Monroe County's most affluent bedroom communities, and one still loaded with open space and farms.

            Recently Webster Town Supervisor Cathryn Thomas unveiled a budget proposal intended to "offset" various cost increases, including public employee health insurance and retirement benefits, by cutting some programs. Top on the list was a proposal to "eliminate funding for seasonal swimming at North Ponds Park," a town-owned beach next to the Route 104 expressway. (The artificial ponds, now grown more "natural" in appearance, were created when the x-way was built.) According to Thomas, the cut will save $90,000 or "one percent on the tax rate." She said the idea was to achieve "a zero percent [town] tax rate increase."

            The proposal has its fans and detractors. One of the latter is Pete Chatfield, the Democratic Party candidate now opposing Thomas (R-I-C) in her re-election bid.

            "My sense is, this park has been used for swimming for more than 25 years, and it's a crying shame we're going to close it," says Chatfield. He notes one of Webster's homegrown ironies: "We're surrounded by water we can't use for swimming," he says, referring to the town's long frontage on both Lake Ontario and Irondequoit Bay. (The county-owned Webster Park did have swimming "a long, long, long time ago," he says.)

            "Surveys they took showed a high percentage of [North Ponds] users were from outside the town," says Chatfield. He charges the Thomas administration "sees it in their interest to not raise taxes... and they'll do whatever they can to get elected."

            If it's true that the North Ponds beach serves many out-of-towners, Webster residents will save tax dollars at the expense of non-residents who have no comparable swimming facilities at home. And the closure will certainly energize the ripple effects from past beach closures, as at Durand Eastman Park many years ago, and Mendon Ponds Park beach more recently.

            The North Ponds closure "is like history repeating itself," says Cassandra Petsos of the local People for Parks organization. "The individual towns do not want to support maintaining [swimming facilities] when people who are not residents of the town use them," she says. "If you look back into Durand Eastman's history," she says, you'll find that non-resident usage "was the instigating reason for the county to take over some of the city parks."

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