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“Shall the Village of Medina, NY be dissolved?”

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 18 January 2015 at 12:00 am

Editorial

That will be the question Tuesday, when village residents go to the polls from noon to 9 p.m. at the Senior Center

MEDINA – Dissolution of the village has been a heated topic for much of the past year. You don’t see much sustained interest in civic affairs these days, with public policy issues bringing hundreds of people to informational meetings.

Residents have been inundated with messages from the media, paid mailers, yard signs and impassioned citizens on both sides. The dissolution issue has drawn the attention of media throughout Western New York. Many villages wrestle with similar issues faced in Medina: escalating taxes on a shrinking tax base and population.

One thing is clear: villagers and people outside the village value the work done by the Medina Fire Department, the Police Department, the Department of Public Works and other village staff. The village isn’t putting out a bad product.

The issue is money and how to pay for these services. The village receives little in state aid and from the local sales tax dollars to help pay for these services. That seems unlikely to change.

State funding

Orleans Hub has written about the funding disparity from the state for Aid and Incentives to Municipalities. Villages get about $7 per capita in AIM funding while upstate cities get $277 per person. It is a dramatic difference and it’s a big reason while city taxes are much lower than in villages like Medina. Consider that the City of Batavia has a tax rate of about $9 per $1,000 of assessed property and the village of Medina has a combined village/town rate of about $20.

Medina, population 6,065, receives $38,811 in AIM funding. Salamanca in Cattaraugus County is nearly the same size and gets $928,131 for a city of 5,815 people.

Fair AIM funding would do more for Medina than dissolution. The question is whether the village would ever get much more in AIM. I don’t think so under Gov. Andrew Cuomo and this State Legislature. The governor wants fewer governments, and villages are an extra layer within towns.

The governor supports state funding to dissolve or consolidate governments. That incentive would be $541,000 for the Medina community.

I’d like to see more. Only 11 villages out of about 550 have followed through with dissolution since 2009. Many of them are tiny without police.

Many of the villages don’t trust that the state incentive money will be there for years to come. No one can say for sure.

If the state wants to promote more dissolutions it should increase the incentive. Right now it’s 15 percent of the combined tax levy in the affected municipalities. I’d like to see at least $1 million for the Medina community. That’s about what Medina would get in AIM funding if it were a city.

Village residents need to consider the political environment. Is there a reasonable chance the AIM funding will be increased? The governor this past week announced a $1.7 billion tax relief proposal for upstate. He didn’t include more AIM money.

Our state legislators don’t seem optimistic we’d get more, and frankly it’s not an issue they’ve rallied behind. None of the local towns or the county have taken up the fight to help villages get more AIM funding. The municipalities haven’t even passed a symbolic resolution of support.

Our poorest people pay the highest taxes

Medina village residents receive “heightened services” with police and a paid fire department. Those employees will often go outside village borders to assist in the towns. The Medina Police Department responds to about 200 calls outside the village annually, for example.

The village property owners foot the bill for all of this work. And then they pay in town and county taxes.

The Medina Fire Department heads down East Center Street on an ambulance call Friday that was outside the village.

It wasn’t too long ago when Middle Class families and the more well-to-do made villages their destination of choice for owning a home. The taxes may have been higher, but the residents could afford it. The poorer folks tended to be out in the country.

Those roles have reversed. Census data shows the median household income in the Village of Medina from 2009 to 2013 is $40,014 for 2,409 households. The Census Bureau reports 20.9 percent of those are in poverty.

Countywide, the data is better. The median household income is $48,502. Of the 15,725 households, 13.4 percent are in poverty.

The poorer people now tend to live in the village, and they pay the bigger tax bill – a combined $54 per $1,000 of assessed property, one of the highest rates in the state.
Move outside the village lines and people can lop about $12 off that tax rate. On a $100,000 house you save about $1,200. That is a tough disincentive for the village to overcome.

The discrepancy has driven out investment and residents. Many of the businesses – manufacturers and retail – will set up just outside the village lines where there is close access to the population but a much smaller tax bill. Those businesses also can tap into village water and sewer (at a slightly higher rate). If they have a fire or police emergency, Medina will be quickly on the scene.

A community in decline

Medina’s downtown has seen a rebirth in businesses and events, including the Parade of Lights. But the neighborhoods are struggling.

The assessments in Medina, for the houses especially, have been falling. Overall, the village tax base was $156.0 million in 2005. Almost a decade later in 2014 it was at $166.3 million. That includes $4.1 million for Orchard Manor, which came on the tax rolls for the first time in 2013. That is a 6.6 percent growth over nearly a decade, which doesn’t it keep up with inflation.

If you take off the Orchard Manor assessment, the village’s taxable value has fallen from $166.1 million in 2007 to $162.2 million in 2014.

Go outside the village line in Shelby and Ridgeway, and the home and land values saw significant increases. The outside-village land in Shelby grew from $86.5 million in 2005 to $108.3 million in 2014. In Ridgeway, the outside-village land increased from $102.5 million in 2005 to $128.2 million in 2014, according to data from the Orleans County Real Property Tax Service.

Shelby grew 25.2 percent outside the village and Ridgeway jumped 25.1 percent during the nine years.

These numbers should sound an alarm for the village. Orleans Hub has written extensively about the difficult position the local villages are in. Many people tell me I’m too “Pro Dissolution.”

I live in the Village of Albion. I want to see the villages of Holley, Lyndonville, Medina and Albion all be vibrant communities today.

But I recognize there is a major problem here. I hear the stories first-hand about people moving out, or staying and being crushed by their taxes. Many more people want to move out but they can’t sell their house, or they are offered a fraction of what they paid for it – with that sale price from 15 to 20 years ago.

The marketing and public relations specialists hired to defeat dissolution have used images of Medina that show a vibrant downtown and charming scenes along the Erie Canal.

Thankfully, some of that still exists. But the Medina story includes neighborhoods in decline, houses abandoned or in neglect. An anonymous donor has provided $400,000 in matching funds to get houses painted and windows repaired the past two years. That has helped the community look more appealing, but this village is clearly suffering.

These boarded-up houses at 613-615 and 617 Genesee St. were torn down in November 2013. They depressed the neighborhood. The village would like to take down more houses, but they are costly projects.

When I talk with local officials at the village, town, county and state levels, I often tell them they shouldn’t just judge Medina on the downtown. Look at the whole community, and look at the numbers.

And face the prospect that it could get worse.

The village gets very little in sales tax revenue

The village needs money to tackle its problems and to lower its taxes. I’ve advocated that the county share more of the local sales tax. Our county gets about $15 million a year in the sales tax, mainly from retail establishments in the villages or close to the village lines.

But only about $400,000 of the total, less than 3 percent, is redirected to the villages. The county shares $1,366,671 of the $15 million with the 10 towns and four villages. That share has been frozen since 2001. That year the county took in about $10 million in sales tax. It has increased by 50 percent or $5 million since then, and all of that increase has stayed with the county government.

The county leaders say they are burdened with Medicaid, state mandates and community college charge backs. When pressed on the issue, the county officials say they don’t have to share any sales tax with the towns of villages. Some counties don’t share sales tax, including Wyoming County. However that county runs the local hospital and nursing home.

In Orleans, the county is far less burdened with services. Much of the critical work is done at the town and village level, yet they get very little of the sales tax money.

Genesee County shares 50 percent of the sales tax with its towns, villages and the City of Batavia. Those communities have much smaller tax rates than in Orleans. Consider the Village of Oakfield, population 1,813. It will get about $300,000 in sales tax from Genesee in 2014. Medina, population 6,065, will receive $159,586.

There doesn’t seem to be any willingness from Orleans County to give more to the villages or towns. Keep in mind, Holley, Albion and Medina all have police departments that allow the county to run a smaller Sheriff’s Department, saving county taxpayers from an increase in costs with more deputies. It would make sense to direct more sales tax to the villages to help pay for the police protection.

The ethanol plant tax windfall – for everyone except the village
Western New York Energy opened in late 2007, producing about 55 million gallons of ethanol a year from a site at the corner of Bates Road and Route 31A.

The company has been a goldmine of new tax revenue for the governments in the Medina area, except for the village. The plant is on the east side of Bates Road – not the west side. Same thing with Brunner and that puts the companies just outside the village limits.

Brunner has grown in the Medina community, putting on additions at its site at the corner of Bates Road and Route 31. The company is on the east side of Bates Road, just outside the village line, which means the village doesn’t get any tax revenue from Brunner.

The ethanol plant pays out more than $1.2 million to local governments each year. (23 percent of that or $271,319 is being held in a stabilization fund to help provide a cushion when the 10-year Empire Zone benefits expire. After that, WNY Energy is expected to pay a smaller tax bill.)

The past few years have been a bonanza for several taxing entities with the ethanol plant. Medina Central School has received $535,623 annually from Western New York Energy, with Orleans County getting $232,310, the Town of Shelby $140,391, and Lee-Whedon Memorial Library $40,882. The Town of Ridgeway even gets $4.57.

The Village of Medina, the one with the ladder fire truck and the police close by, gets nothing.

Brunner has expanded several times on the east side of Bates Road. It’s been a big tax generator for the Town of Ridgeway, the school district and county. But the village gets nothing.

Since the village Fire Department took over as primary ambulance provider for western Orleans in 2006, it has tried to get a $10,000 contribution from Shelby and Ridgeway. They have paid nothing.

Many of the Village Board members who have wrestled with these issues for years are frustrated and angry about the lack of funds trickling into the village coffers. The Orleans Economic Development Agency has pushed to get the village some revenue from these businesses that use village services but are just across the village lines.

The two towns, the county and the school district all agreed to share some of the funds in the future. That deal was struck about three years ago. It hasn’t resulted in any money for the village yet, but it could with the Keppeler site on Route 31A and other projects near the village, if the companies hook into village water and sewer. That provides a window of hope if you’re a village taxpayer.

Village employees are paid a lot
Don Earle, the Seneca Falls town supervisor, talked about his community’s experience with dissolution when he visited Medina on Friday. Earle said the anticipated savings with dissolution were actually much more than advertised.

That was partly because village employees who shifted to the town payroll were paid less. They kept their jobs, but they made less money, which eased some of the pain for taxpayers.

I don’t begrudge anyone a good salary. I wish we had more people making a good dollar around here. It would help the local economy, help the churches, help people afford some of the maintenance projects in these old mansions around here.
But I think the village workers are paid too much in a poor community with such high taxes.

The Empire Center lists the salaries for every state, county, town, village and school district employee. I’m not going to list these salaries, but Medina in 2013 had one employee over $80,000, nine in the $70s, six in the $60s, and 16 in the $50s. I can see why the union and employees have been so active in trying to defeat dissolution.
In 2013, 48 people on the village payroll were paid $2,358,819.

Dissolution would help, but it’s not enough
Village residents can knock about $6 per $1,000 of assessed property off that staggering tax bill if the village dissolves. For a $70,000 house that would be $420 less in taxes.

That may sound like a lot, but even with dissolution the rate would be $48. That is still among the highest in the region and still puts the community at a competitive disadvantage in attracting businesses and residents.

OneMedina wants to dissolve the village and merge towns of Shelby and Ridgeway. A town merger would bring an additional $447,000 in state aid each year. That end result, which would be years in the making, could make the community a little closer to average for tax rate.

I give Medina Mayor Andrew Meier and the OneMedina members credit for forcing this issue. They knew it wouldn’t win them a popularity contest.

Many people have misgivings about the state incentives. I’d like Gov. Cuomo or Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul to stand on Main Street and assure the community the state incentive money will be there for years and years to come.

And I’d like to see them increase the incentive, even if they raised it from 15 to 20 percent. That would be another $180,000 with the village dissolution.

Dissolution Plan doesn’t identify much in efficiency savings
When the Dissolution Committee started meeting to hash out a dissolution plan, I was expecting far more than the $277,000 in operational efficiencies. That is less than 3 percent of the budgets of the two towns and village.

The savings should stand on their own, outside of the state aid, if the community is going to realize a more efficient government. We found out the local governments are already lean. There aren’t extra people on the payroll.

How would towns treat village if dissolution goes down

My big fear with the vote on Tuesday is it will be rejected and the towns, county and state will take that as a sign the village people like things just the way they are.

The county won’t give any more sales tax. The towns will feel more empowered to be stingy with village taxpayers, and the state won’t entertain giving more AIM funding.

The village will continue in its downward spiral. (It wouldn’t get another chance for a dissolution vote for four years.)

Better scenarios?
The village’s total tax levy is $2,738,602 in 2014-15. How could that be reduced if the village stays intact?

Here are some scenarios for cutting taxes if the village decides against dissolution:

The county either offers to take over policing countywide or gives Medina $500,000 more in sales tax (about half of the village police budget). Maybe the county agrees to start smaller, directing $150,000 to help support the Medina police. That would be 1 percent of the sales tax. It should send a similar amount to Albion for its police department and maybe a third of that to help sustain the Holley police.

If the county won’t budge, the villages should consider eliminating their police departments and the community should insist the county step up with more deputies.

The towns of Shelby and Ridgeway each agree to pay at least $25,000 towards the Fire Department ambulance service. The towns follow through with promises of shared services and help plow village streets and better fund the parks program.

Our local state legislators make more state aid for villages their top priority in Albany. They convince the governor and the State Legislature that villages are like mini cities, providing an array of services but facing aging infrastructure, decaying housing stock and a host of other challenges.

The state sees the light and agrees to $100 per capita for villagers, which would be $190 million out of the state budget. That would be about $600,000 more for Medina.

The Keppeler site in Shelby near the village attracts several tenants and they pay a lot in taxes, with the village getting a big chunk of those funds. The EDA also works with the communities to rewrite tax-sharing deals for the ethanol plant, Brunner and others just across the village line, giving Medina a cut of the revenue.

Village employees step forward and offer to take a 5 percent pay cut. That alone will save about $120,000.

The towns and village work together on several community development projects, which could include better gateway entrances to the community, a trail project by Glenwood Lake and other projects that draw more residents to the community and improve the quality of life for those who already live in Medina.

Are any of these scenarios plausible? That will be something for village voters to consider on Tuesday. Will Medina have strong partners in the future at the town, county and state level?

If I was a Medina villager, I would give it one more try. If there are no signs of progress, dissolution would be an issue again in four years.

But if village residents vote on Tuesday to dissolve the village, I wouldn’t blame them.