Also, asks state to OK court appearances by video
By Holly Crocco
As part of the 2017-18 state budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo established an initiative to encourage cities, towns, villages, school districts, fire departments and other agencies to share services and reduce costs, and taxes. He dangled the possibility that municipalities that make this happen could receive additional state funding.
The plan calls on each county executive to establish a panel to research ways to eliminate redundant services, establish joint purchasing and share equipment and facilities.
During a hearing on May 18 in Carmel, Putnam lawmakers criticized the governor and state legislature for not recognizing that the county has long shared services.
As an example, county officials noted that Putnam is part of the East of Hudson Watershed Corp., in which 19 municipalities work together to meet stormwater regulations. It has also established a county Commission for Fiscal Vision and Accountability that investigates ways to improve infrastructure, lower energy consumption, consolidate law enforcement, find health insurance savings and share garbage and recycling services, recreational facilities and programs and tax assessment resources.
Sheriff Donald Smith cited the school resource officer program in which the county provides law enforcement officers stationed at schools, including Haldane in Cold Spring.
In addition, the Sheriff’s Office and the Carmel and Kent police departments share training resources as part of the Putnam County Emergency Response Team, he said. The county also patrols Lake Mahopac to assist the Carmel P.D.
One central office
During the hearing, Southeast Town Councilwoman Lynne Eckardt asked County Executive MaryEllen Odell if her administration or the Legislature has considered downsizing the county government. Odell responded that its cost to taxpayers is already minimal.
According to Odell, Putnam collects the lowest portion, per dollar, of property tax of any of New York’s 62 counties. In Putnam, for each $1 of property tax, 71 cents go to school districts, she said, 18 cents to towns, 1 cent to fire districts and 1 cent to villages. The county gets 9 cents.
“The big money is in the school districts, not the town or county government,” she said.
She pointed to Fairfax, Virginia, where the county government administers all the schools in the county — serving 180,000 students — through a single administrative office. Odell stated that with many of Putnam’s six school districts maintaining separate offices with combined salaries that exceed $200,000 each, a significant savings could be made by consolidation.
The next public hearing on the shared services initiative is scheduled for 4 p.m. on June 20.
Putnam lawmakers continue to push for the ability to bring inmates to court through video conferencing. The move would require a change in state law to allow a judge to determine if a defendant could be beamed in from the Putnam County Correctional Facility or other lockups. Currently the inmate must agree.
Odell said the county already has the equipment and is “shovel-ready” for the change. Legislator Neal Sullivan (R-Mahopac) explained that when the proposal first came up a few years ago, it was backed by the sheriff, the district attorney and a number of towns, so the county spent several hundred thousand-dollars on equipment.
Odell said allowing a judge to order inmates to appear by video could save the county as much as $200,000 annually in costs associated with transporting prisoners — including wear and tear on vehicles, gas and overtime for deputies — while improving officer safety.
In addition, Odell argued, some inmates prefer to not come to court. “Not every defendant wants to take the ride and be paraded around,” she said.
Smith said having a defendant appear before a judge through a television or computer screen, in real time, would “in no way” violate that person’s rights.
However, during a discussion in April, some lawmakers expressed concern.
Dini LoBue (R-Mahopac Falls) said that forcing defendants to appear by video was a civil-rights violation. “We’d be opening ourselves up to litigation,” she argued.
Ginny Nacerino (R-Patterson) had a similar opinion. “There’s something important about a face-to-face translation and I would hate to see that ability taken away,” she said.