Local government leaders tell Leadership Orleans that municipalities face many challenges

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 16 February 2020 at 10:08 am

Some advice: ‘Stay off Facebook’ where the comments are often critical

Photos by Tom Rivers: The Leadership Orleans class on Thursday learned about local government. The class each month explores a different aspect of the county. During a discussion session at the County Administration Building the class heard from panelists, from left: Albion Mayor Eileen Banker (who is also chief of staff for Assemblyman Steve Hawley); Orleans County Legislature Chairwoman Lynne Johnson; Josh Veronica, director of Community Relations for State Sen. Rob Ortt; and John Belson, Lyndonville mayor.

ALBION – Local municipalities feel the pressure to maintain services and infrastructure for residents, while being sensitive to not raising taxes.

It’s a difficult task, not raising taxes when there is an outcry for better roads, sidewalks, suitable land for businesses and residential development and more services.

Lyndonville John Belson said the village keeps a small staff in providing services to the community. He urged more people to volunteer in the fire department and other local organizations.

The Leadership Orleans Class of 2020 heard from local government leaders on Thursday during a day focused on the legislative process. Officials at the village, town, county and state level met with the class of 27 members. This is the third year for Leadership Orleans.

Albion Mayor Eileen Banker said the towns and villages are sharing equipment and staff to try to keep costs down while maintaining services. Albion shares a police chief with Holley, and the Albion also manages Holley’s sewer plant.

The local towns, villages and county have long shared personnel and machinery, especially for paving projects.

“We do a lot of shared services,” said Banker, who is also chief of staff for Assemblyman Steve Hawley. “It’s the only way we can do what we do.”

She said the village is operating with a much smaller staff now than a generation ago. For example, Banker said the DPW is down from 26-27 employees to only nine.

Lyndonville Mayor John Belson said the local villages have aging infrastructure. Lyndonville has some waterlines that are nearly a century old and would cost $750,000 to replace. The village also should paint its water tower and that will cost $800,000. The sewer plant also needs $1 million in upgrades.

Lyndonville only has about 800 village residents or 380 homeowners to spread out those costs.

“It’s a balancing act to try to pay the bills,” Belson said. “We see the residents. They are our neighbors. We don’t want to raise the taxes.”

Belson said Lyndonville runs a bare-bones government with three highway workers, a full-time clerk, a part-time clerk and a part-time zoning officer. There is no where to cut and still provide basic services to residents, he said.

When Lyndonville is in a pinch, neighboring municipalities will help. The village recently had a watermain break on Main Street. Highway and DPW workers from the Town of Shelby and Village of Medina helped Lyndonville to fix the leak.

Belson said volunteers, especially as firefighters, have been critical in the community. But he worries those ranks are being depleted.

“I’m concerned over the shortage of firefighters and EMTs,” he said. “Get involved because we need you.”

The local municipalities often struggle to fill other positions on the planning and zoning boards. Belson said there are many ways for residents to serve their communities.

The Leadership Orleans Class listens to the panelists discuss local government. The class will have different focus in the following months, including an adventure leadership day in March, community health in April, education in May, business and culture in June, tourism and recreation in July, agribusiness in August, economic and workforce development in September, simulated society in October, volunteerism in November, and a closing retreat and graduation in December.

The local elected officials said the part-time jobs as mayor, town supervisor or county legislator are demanding, and don’t bring much appreciation from the public.

Lynne Johnson, chairwoman of the Orleans County Legislature, said she appreciates the occasional hard-written letter or card from a resident thanking the Legislature for working on an issue. She gets many complaints in her email inbox.

“Once in a while we get an attaboy and that makes all the difference,” she said.

Johnson said the county legislators put together a county budget full of state-mandated programs. Very little in the county budget is outside state control. That is frustrating, especially as the county tries to stay within a state tax cap of about 2 percent, while trying to be responsive to needs in the community.

Johnson said the county has been able to move forward on upgrades to bridges and culverts, county facilities, and increased tourism promotion. She is excited about news last week the state will dredge two harbors in Orleans County – Johnson Creek and Oak Orchard, both in Carlton. Johnson said she will continue to push for county-wide high-speed internet.

“Broadband, we haven’t given up,” Johnson told the Leadership Orleans class. “It’s been a six-year war to get all of Orleans County covered.”

Banker said the role of mayor is an often thankless job. While few people attend Village Board meetings, many will comment harshly about Albion on Facebook.

“Stay off of Facebook is my husband’s advice,” Banker said.

Like Belson, she urged more people to give back to the community and be part of the solution.

Belson said a local elected official needs “a strong backbone” because there will be criticism. He prefers to get out on the community and hear directly from residents and try to stave off rumors.

Dean Bellack, a Leadership Orleans class member this year, said the local governments should be looking to consolidate. He supported the “One Medina” effort to dissolve the village and reduce some of the local layers of government. Medina residents rejected dissolution by a 949 to 527 vote on Jan. 20, 2015. It hasn’t been brought up again.

Banker and Belson said it’s difficult for municipalities to give up control. While they share services, a bigger consolidation can be unnerving over the uncertainty in services.

In a recent law enforcement study in the county one option was eliminating the village police departments and having the Sheriff’s Office patrol the villages. That would have offered cost savings in providing law enforcement countywide. But none of the villages supported that option, and it died. It would have raised county taxes but reduced the tax burden in the villages.

Banker was vocal in wanting to keep the Albion Police Department. She received numerous calls from residents in support of keeping the Albion PD.

Belson said any consolidation will be a struggle, whether with school districts or the local town-village level.

“It’s a tough sell,” he said. “Nobody wants to lose their territory.”

Josh Veronica, director of community relations for State Sen. Rob Ortt, also addressed the group. He said Ortt’s office is fielding many calls from residents and elected officials, concerned about the new bail reform laws that went into effect on Jan. 1.

Belson, the Lyndonville mayor, thanked Ortt for securing $100,000 in state assistance for repairs to the Lyndonville dam last year.

This group of panelists includes from left: Shelby Town Highway Superintendent Dale Root, Murray Town Highway Superintendent Ed Morgan (discussing his role as a commissioner for the Fancher-Hulberton-Murray Fire District) and Murray Town Clerk Cindy Oliver.

In another panel discussion, the class heard from Murray Highway Superintendent Ed Morgan, who spoke about his role as a fire commissioner the past 32 years for the Fancher-Hulberton-Murray Fire District. Murray Town Clerk Cindy Oliver and Dale Root, Shelby highway superintendent, also spoke on that panel.

Morgan said he worries on the declining numbers of volunteer firefighters and EMTs. He can see the communities needing to turn to paid or a partially paid crew in the future.

Orleans County Court Judge Sanford Church also addressed the class on Thursday morning. At lunch, the group heard from Orleans County District Attorney Joe Cardone, Assistant Public Defender Dominic Saraceno and County Attorney Katherine Bogan.

The class then went on site visits to the Orleans County Administration Building, the Orleans County Public Safety Building, Holley gardens (former Holley High School) and Holley sewer treatment plant, Albion sewer plant, Orleans County Department of Public Works, and Town of Gaines Justice Court.

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