Dutchess submits plan, but Putnam declines, for now
By Chip Rowe
Gov. Andrew Cuomo would like the chief executives of New York’s counties to think long and hard how to share services within their borders. In fact, as part of the passage of the 2018 state budget, he mandated it.
In September, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro submitted a 59-page report, Dutchess Together, that outlined $27 million in savings from 37 projects, including disbanding the Wappingers Falls police department.
In Putnam County, MaryEllen Odell said she would not produce a plan, at least not this year. The county executive told the Legislature on Aug. 1 that “severe time restraints” (the initiative was announced on April 10) made it “impractical and impossible to finalize a substantive and well-reasoned plan” but that one would be ready for 2018.
Anyway, she said, none of the town supervisors wanted to be involved; they were happy with the county’s existing efforts.
The supervisors begged to differ.
Going it alone
The Shared Services Initiative required that county executives (excluding those in New York City) appoint a panel of local elected officials, hold at least three public hearings, and draft a plan with input from cities, towns, villages, school districts, fire departments, non-profits, unions and other interested groups.
The goal was to eliminate duplicate services, use bulk purchasing to get reduced rates and prices, share equipment and facilities and reduce administrative overhead.
If a county submitted a plan to the director of the New York Division of the Budget by Oct. 15, the state promised matching grants that equaled whatever savings it realized. Counties that waited would likely miss out on grants but could repeat the process in 2018.
The initiative was not universally popular. A number of counties, including Putnam, said they already had their own strategies in place to share services, and didn’t need marching orders. They also noted that one of the reasons property taxes were high — the target of the Shared Services Initiative — was because of unfunded state mandates. Nevertheless, 50 of 57 county executives submitted draft plans to their legislatures for approval by the Aug. 1 deadline.
Odell held public meetings in May and June. She said she had reached out to the supervisors of the county’s six towns and concluded that all were satisfied with its efforts at consolidation.
For that reason, Odell said, she recommended that the Legislature instead rely on a revived county Commission for Fiscal Vision and Accountability, which looks for ways to make infrastructure improvements, consolidate law-enforcement departments, achieve health insurance savings, and share garbage and recycling services, recreational facilities and programs, energy consumption and tax assessment resources.
“That’s the route that Putnam went,” she said in an interview.
Odell said the governor’s initiative was flawed, and based on the fallacy that county spending is the reason property taxes are higher in New York than other states, “which is incredibly absurd.”
In a presentation at her first public hearing on the Shared Services Initiative, Odell noted that of every $1 collected via property taxes, 71 cents goes to school districts and 9 cents to the county, while towns, villages, and fire districts account for the remaining 20 cents.
On Oct. 5, during a presentation of her draft 2018 budget, Odell said that 70 percent of county operating expenses are for unfunded mandates imposed by higher levels of government.
(In his shared services report, Dutchess Executive Marc Molinaro described a similar situation in his county, in which “70 percent of net county costs are for mandated programs and services. The remaining 30 percent is ‘optional spending,’ including crucial government functions such as health and mental health services, sheriff road patrols, road repair, snow removal, public transportation, 911 dispatch, and senior services.”)
School districts and fire districts can opt out of the state initiative, which Odell says she considers unfair because a school district’s portion of a property tax bill far exceeds the county portion.
Odell said that Cuomo had backtracked on the promise of matching state grant money and that lawmakers learned at a meeting of the New York State Association of Counties that counties which execute a plan won’t see any matching funds until 2019, because they will have to document the actual savings in 2018 and then file reports.
The concept of reducing redundant services is not new to Putnam, said Odell. There are already “hundreds of ways” the county is sharing services with municipalities and school districts through the School Resource Officer/Special Patrol Officer Program, the Putnam County Emergency Response Team, shared facility space, shared highway maintenance routes, and proposed video teleconferencing appearances for inmates, among other projects, she said.
In an unusual joint statement issued Oct. 4, Richard Shea, the Philipstown town supervisor, along with the supervisors of Carmel, Kent, Patterson, Putnam Valley and Southeast, said they wanted to “set the record straight” on creating a shared services plan.
“We are very much interested in discussing how services between the towns and/or the county might be consolidated or shared to improve efficiency, or to reduce taxes,” they wrote.
They said they agreed with Odell that the governor’s initiative “left much to be desired” and that the root of the problem was that the State Legislature has “consistently refused to address mandate reform, tort reform, insurance reform or any of several areas that might ease the costs on local government.
“The governor must stop playing the blame game and begin showing leadership, working with local government to solve problems, not blaming us for the high property taxes, while the state is rigging the game against us.”
However, they charged, Odell had made only a minimal effort. Establishment of the panel required by the initiative, which would have included the supervisors, “never occurred,” they wrote. Further, “no meaningful attempt has ever been made to meet with the supervisors to discuss ways that services might be shared or consolidated. Instead the county went straight to holding the public hearings on a non-existent plan, hoping that one would be developed along the way.”
In June, the supervisors sent a joint letter to Odell asking her to meet to discuss a plan. “That meeting never occurred,” they wrote. “We also suggested that a more cautious approach be followed in order to develop a more comprehensive and well-thought plan, believing that two months does not allow sufficient time to develop a plan which provides a full understanding of the potential cost savings, or how the plan may affect the quality of service to each of our respective municipalities.
“The county executive, in concurring with our opinion, sent our recommendation to the county Legislature. It is October, and we have still not heard from our county executive,” the supervisors wrote.
They said they have continued to meet among themselves, with the goal of having a draft plan prepared by the 2018 deadline. “As we have no choice but to go it alone, this is the route that Putnam County’s towns are pursuing,” they wrote.
Several days before the supervisors issued their statement, Shea told The Current that “the reluctance on the part of the county executive to have a meeting with the supervisors is not helpful. Our legislator, Barbara Scuccimarra, has also not brought up the issue at a Town Board meeting during her reports. At least this would be a good start.”
A village perspective
Nelsonville Mayor Bill O’Neill, who attended Odell’s May 18 presentation on shared services, said he “didn’t see a lot of interest” among others present. He said it made “absolutely” no difference to Nelsonville if the county declined to proceed.
“Theoretically, it makes a great deal of sense” to share services, O’Neill said, because it could reduce property taxes. But so far, he said, “there’s no compelling argument,” he said.
Nelsonville has a good relationship with the Philipstown Highway Department and the county highway department has also offered assistance, if needed and feasible, he said, while Odell herself has been “extremely supportive” of the village.
Meanwhile, the Philipstown Town Board has backed Nelsonville’s efforts to find alternatives to a controversial cell tower proposal. Overall, O’Neill said, “I’m very happy with the level of cooperation we’re getting” from other governments.
Holly Crocco and Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong contributed reporting.