Consolidation and Sharing Key to Town and Village Efficiency

State officials give tips and offer aid

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Led by Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, officials from New York State’s Department of State last Thursday (May 29) briefed citizens and civil servants on the A-B-C-Ds of increasing local government efficiency, saving taxpayer money, and boosting state aid levels.

Their alphabet focused on A — alternative ways of thinking; B — better governance through efficiency; and C consolidation, sometimes achieved by D — dissolution of small independent jurisdictions.

Held at Cortlandt town hall, the event drew about 20 attendees, including administrators from the Garrison and Carmel public school districts. No one from the Cold Spring Village Board, Nelsonville Village Board, or Philipstown Town Board came, despite their ongoing consideration of consolidating their building departments.

Sandy Galef Photo by L.S. Armstrong

Sandy Galef
Photo by L.S. Armstrong

A Democrat who represents Philipstown and other Hudson Valley towns, Galef highlighted both the pressures for, and advantages of, merging government functions. The impetus largely comes from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state efforts to get local governments to freeze property taxes, meet a cap on tax increases, and save taxpayer money, with refunds for residents of those jurisdictions, including school districts, that do so, Galef said. Along with the rewards come obligations for governments to cut spending, she explained.

“So there’s a big effort,” she said, “for us to learn to share services, coordinate our programs, consolidate services or consolidate governments or whatever. If we want, ourselves, as taxpayers, to get some money back from the state with the freeze in the future, we have to convince ourselves and the public and our local officials that we need to do things differently.”

Answering difficult questions

Mark Pattison, director of local government services in New York’s Department of State (DOS), said local jurisdictions need to ask “is there a better way to provide services?” He pointed out that many of New York’s numerous government entities originated in the 18th or early 19th centuries, born of solitary hamlets and the distance easily covered on horseback. Over time, distances and borders between jurisdictions disappeared and individual governments remained and overlapped, he said. With that came extra costs — rapidly escalating costs in recent years, he said.

Mark Pattison Photo by L.S. Armstrong

Mark Pattison
Photo by L.S. Armstrong

Pattison delineated ways local jurisdictions can share services or consolidate. For the latter, one option is dissolution of one municipality (or other jurisdiction) and its merger with another, a process that can either begin with a municipality’s governing board, or at the initiative of residents who get a dissolution referendum on the ballot. As communities consider consolidation, “there are many questions to be answered,” Pattison advised. “Larger is not always better.” At the same time, he observed, small jurisdictions face difficulties even keeping a government in place. “Some of our communities can hardly get people to run for office anymore,” Pattison said.

He advised communities everywhere to answer certain questions. Among them is not only whether “too many layers” of government exist but “what the right layer is,” he said. He offered the state’s assistance, including grants and financial aid, as local deliberations on consolidation, combining functions, and achieving other efficiencies ensue. “This is not a top-down thing,” Pattison emphasized. “It’s an invitation and incentive for people to get together and think about their governments in a different way,” asking, “Is there a better way for us to do it? People ultimately have to choose where they want their communities to go,” he said. “Do they want to maintain some unique identity” as a separate village or school district, “perhaps at a cost?”

Moreover, according to Pattison, in consolidations, “it’s not always just the cost savings” that provide benefits, since consolidations “almost always result in opportunities for improved services.” For example, he said, combining disparate justice courts into a single larger court “can provide the idea of more proper facilities and supports” for ensuring justice in the community.

“We have lots of local courts in the district I represent,” Galef noted.

Locally, consolidation of the Town of Philipstown, Village of Cold Spring, and Village of Nelsonville justice courts into one has been suggested for several years.

Easy and tough cases

To begin merging and saving money, communities typically “take the small steps that build the common ground,” combining some functions; moreover some small jurisdictions have shared services quietly for years, Pattison pointed out. “The harder ones,” in his view, “are dissolution of villages or elimination of police departments.”

Carl Ublacker Photo by L.S. Armstrong

Carl Ublacker
Photo by L.S. Armstrong

Carl Ublacker, land-use training specialist in the DOS Local Government Division, outlined consolidations and shared-service projects recently undertaken across the state, among them:

  • Merger of two school districts into one.
  • Establishment of a shared public works facility to serve a school district, town, and village.
  • Use of a common zoning code for a town and two villages.
  • A BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) and school districts’ merger of information technology, purchasing, and more.
  • Creation by a school district, county, town and villages of a mutual records management center.

Ublacker also mentioned the consolidation of the Town of Saugerties and Village of Saugerties police. “It was pretty contentious,” he recalled. Up front, a savings of $678,586 annually was estimated but the move saved “slightly over $1 million” yearly, he added.

“Fire-services consolidation,” uniting individual departments, “is also oftentimes contentious,” Ublacker commented. He said the state has funded a couple of fire-fighting consolidations and elsewhere paid for equipment for a merged department serving two villages and a town.

Dede Scozzafava Photo by L.S. Armstrong

Dede Scozzafava
Photo by L.S. Armstrong

In controversial consolidations, both Pattison and Dede Scozzafava, New York’s deputy secretary of state, highlighted the importance of dissemination facts and sound information, so residents can vote with knowledge and objectivity. “We all know that in a lot of these situations it’s emotional and emotion is powerful,” Scozzafava said. “It takes a lot to work through some of these issues.”

7 thoughts on “Consolidation and Sharing Key to Town and Village Efficiency

  1. Bravo, Sandy Galef! Thank you for a well-written and informative article. So, consolidation is fiscally responsible by creating cost-savings, and generating grant money from New York State. Got it. So taxes can go down. Great. So all those fiscally conservative Republicans who just got into office in Cold Spring Village should be jumping all over this, right? And they should be jumping on it quickly! Because, as Michael Bowman said in his election campaign, he didn’t like the last board’s “inability to make a decision.” So this is where I get totally confused. When Richard Shea (bravo!) opened a discussion about consolidating building department functions with the village, Bowman’s response was “It seems like everything is a long way off” and “It seems like there’s a lot of unknowns right now.” Those don’t sound like the words of a decider! Though maybe Bowman has started investigating the issue. Maybe he checked in with New York’s Department of State to get help evaluating the issue. Maybe he’s running numbers on a spreadsheet. Maybe I’m jumping the gun. Maybe a decision is imminent. Or maybe he just wants to be, as he put it, “the boss of the Village of Cold Spring inspector” .

    • I think if you go back and review the campaign materials Mr. Bowman’s statements that you quote were in regards to the Butterfield redevelopment, and he did make a decision. It’s now moving forward. And, if you watch the joint meeting of the Village and town boards, Mr. Bowman did say that he had attended the NYCOM Conference recently and that its take on consolidation was not as cut-and-dry as you make it out to be. In the same meeting, the “boss” comment you attribute to Mr. Bowman was actually in the context of the mayor being the boss of the Cold Spring inspector, and who would now have access to Mr. Bujarski.

  2. Again, do we have to reiterate that in our village elections there is not a Republican or Democratic party? I guess how one interprets reading articles is left up to the reader and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Mike did attend the NYCOM Conference and reported that its findings were that consolidation was not as cut-and-dry as everyone thinks. I have been retired from the Town for seven years and for at least five years prior to my retirement the Town was talking about consolidating the courts. Has that happened? No, because there are procedures the state has mandated that must be followed and we all know how quickly the state moves. As for being the boss of the Cold Spring building inspector, one knows that the mayor, who I must say is doing a good job despite all the negativity, is the one who oversees Mr. Bujarski.

  3. I attended the Galef conference described in the article (well reported BTW).

    As Marlene Bowman suggests, consolidation can be tricky and trap doors may appear, but, after attending the village/town meetings about this particular building department consolidation idea I’ve yet to hear any specific issue that, in my opinion, could not be dealt with relatively easily.

    I trust the VBOT is studying the issue carefully. Our village/town taxes are high enough. Let’s look closely at a plan that, after study, might well afford village residents full-time building inspector/support staff services with no rise in our taxes.

    All this is in no way to criticize our present building inspector, Mr. Bujarski, who is doing the best he can within the extremely limited resources the village give him. I believe we could and should attempt to make him “whole” at the end of a consolidation process.

  4. Some facts from New York State website:

    Putnam County ranks as 11th highest in property taxes nationally.
    There are 109 governmental departments in Putnam County.
    NYS financial grants to counties to implement consolidations are up to $100,000.
    NYS provides tax credits to consolidating local governments.
    70 percent of all grants and tax credits go to tax reduction.
    In village of Altmar, N.Y., consolidation with town reduced taxes by 45 percent.

    So, as many talk about reducing government waste in Washington and Albany, perhaps they should be talking first about reducing government waste in their own backyards. Albany is giving us an financial incentive. What are we waiting for?

  5. When it comes to consolidation and sharing resources, there seems to be an 800-pound gorilla in the room, the issue that nobody dares speak of. The biggest money saver of all would be to get rid of your Village police department, which now consumes about half of the budget. Why is it necessary for such a tiny community to have not one, not two but three separate policing entities? That would be the Village cops, the state police and, of course, the Sheriff, who has a sub-station just up Main Street. Is there really so much crime or are there so many accidents that the taxpayers need to spend so many millions on “protection?”

    Not only that, but the Village PD is pretty much a part-time force to boot — ever try calling them on the weekend when at the very least, they are needed for traffic control and parking infractions? And don’t get me started on all the parking spaces they have commandeered in the heart of Main Street.

    People have a sentimental attachment to such services that is very hard to overcome. It may be that the taxpayers of Cold Spring are so affluent that they don’t mind funding their own private security force.

  6. I appreciate Ms. Allen and Ms. Bowman’s comments. That said, all political change is complicated and has obstacles – not just consolidation. Political change is never cut-and-dry. And yet it happens. But it only happens when our leaders have the skill and determination necessary to effect change. Tax reduction through consolidation will require such a leader. I hope Mr. Bowman’s work on behalf of seniors will not end with Butterfield. The seniors are clamoring for tax reduction. For now, the ball is in Mr. Bowman’s court on consolidation. The seniors and others will be watching Mr. Bowman’s decisiveness on this issue in the coming months. But first things first. The process requires an initial curiosity rather than a dismissal of it. Why not, instead of saying that it is “a long way off,” say “This is interesting” and “Let me call Assemblywoman Galef. She seems to know a lot about this” and “I’m glad you brought this up, Richard Shea. This is important and we have to work together on this.” In the coming months, I want to hear more from Mr. Bowman about what active steps he’s taking toward consolidation. I will not be satisfied with Ms. Allen and Ms Bowman’s claim that Mr. Bowman attended an annual Mayor’s conference. That is not enough.