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Mayor of Sleepy Village Wages War Against West Point

June 25, 1996

HIGHLAND FALLS, N.Y. (AP) _ ``Welcome to Highland Falls,″ beckons the village sign. ``Gateway to West Point.″

Welcome to a Main Street of Rockwell’s America _ townspeople dishing good-natured banter; a soldier and his civilian buddy savoring sunshine and sweets outside The Ice Cream Shoppe; a tot dressed in tiny fatigues, toy canteen cinched to his belt, tossing a ball on the church lawn.

But all is not wonderful at West Point. Divisive issues have left Highland Falls and its geographical roommate, the United States Military Academy, joined at the hip but not always at the heart.

The enmity has been stoked by Mayor Joseph D’Onofrio, who has begun an open war of words against West Point, which lies on the banks of the Hudson 46 miles north of New York City.

``For many years, we were asleep. I like to think I’ve set the alarm clock off,″ says the mayor, a lifelong Highland Falls resident, former West Point civilian worker and current pizzeria manager.

Among the problems:

_Massive cuts in government ``impact aid″ to Highland Falls and the resulting threats of a tax hike, school insolvency and a real-estate bust.

_Budget cuts for West Point itself, and resulting economic measures which make merchants view the academy as a competitor for retail dollars.

_The town’s struggle to find a niche in the tourist market, despite the 2.5 million tourists drawn each year to West Point.

It must be noted that the Town of Highlands (Highland Falls and even tinier Fort Montgomery, combined population 6,000) is in the same boat as many of America’s small towns.

Main Street is hurting. Disposable income is dwindling. There’s no more movie theater, bowling alley, or ``five-and-dime.″ Friday Night Bingo leaves teens and twentysomethings itching for excitement.

``When the Ben Franklin (variety store) closed, my wife was upset,″ says retired Lt. Col. William J. Pokorny, a former senior aide at West Point who now lives and works in the village.

``(Townspeople) want to blame West Point. But it’s economics. People go across the mountain to Wal-Mart or Sam’s or Rickels.″

Hard times and mixed emotions notwithstanding, West Point is still the cash cow of Highland Falls. The academy employs about 4,000 civilians, with a payroll of about $80 million.

But the cream no longer flows so freely. Peacetime downsizing shrank the cadet corps from 4,400 to 4,000. Cushy civil service jobs, like the motor pool, are now contracted out, often for lower wages and benefits.

``We have to get the best bang for the taxpayer money; the government trend is toward contracting,″ says Joe Tombrello, chief of community relations for West Point.

The academy also is saving and even making money by starting its own businesses _ thereby competing with Highland Falls, D’Onofrio asserts.

West Point’s demand for widgets and gadgets keeps two village hardware stores afloat. But village food-deliverers say they’re smarting from the likes of Ike’s, a new pizza-and-burger joint on the base that delivers to cadets _ tax-free, with profits returned to ``cadet activities.″

``It’s frustrating having to compete with the federal government. They get all this money,″ laments Carol Ward, director of the Community Development Council.

``Are we a competitor? No,″ insists Tombrello. ``But I think there is a perception of competition.″

``We’ve cut back the number of people at West Point, and the dollars available,″ he concedes. Taxpayers no longer foot the bill for lower-echelon activities like rugby, debate and glee club, so the academy hawks sandwiches and tourist trinkets.

``I don’t think fighting is the answer,″ says deli manager Margaret Chewens, whose tailgate and sports-team catering jobs have dropped dramatically.

What, then, is the solution? She draws a blank.

Tombrello thinks the town should go the bed-and-breakfast route, find a place for buses to park besides the McDonald’s and the West Point Visitors Center, and yank out the Main Street parking meters.

Locals are striving mightily, says the mayor, to achieve New England cuteness, with oodles of flowers and even a horse-drawn carriage.

``We can’t seem to attract the kind of businesses we want,″ laments Ward. ``We can’t seem to figure out the niche.″

``Not everything is West Point’s fault,″ concedes D’Onofrio. ``We need to look a little better, act a little nicer.″

It’s not easy to act nice, D’Donofrio says, when discussing impact aid.

The government promised the annual payment in the 1930s and 1940s when the feds and state assumed 93 percent of the town’s land, partly to safeguard the populace during artillery practice.

The school district gets aid based on the assessed value of land it cannot tax. The district received $287,177 for fiscal 1995, down from $536,000 in 1987. The district claims it should have received $1.9 million in fiscal 1995.

``Our staff is down to the bare minimum; we’ve had a reduction in programs,″ said Superintendent Stephen Leitman. ``We’re using textbooks that are 15 years old; we need to replace furniture and repair buildings; our technology is way out of date.″

State funding covers 41 percent of the district’s $10.9 million budget. Another 10 percent comes from the $1 million tuition West Point pays for its 180 high school students. The rest comes largely from property taxes and the impact aid.

As New York’s congressional representatives scramble for more money, there’s talk of a 25 percent tax hike. One hundred and two houses are languishing on the market; 35 teachers have been laid off.

For now, the uneasy truce continues. Locals protest weekly outside the West Point gate, waving signs about impact aid. They stress that the government, not West Point, is to blame, but passing West Pointers are puzzled and wounded by the spectacle.

Pokorny, the brass-turned-businessman, admits that West Pointers are perceived as aloof because they shut out the world to focus on cadet development.

``You’ll hear people say that unless you were born here, you’re an outsider,″ he says. Military families ship out after a few months or years.

``If you start making good friends, it’s hard to say goodbye,″ Pokorny says. ``You try not to get too close _ because it hurts.″

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