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.
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.
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, 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.
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.”