Seneca Falls leader says dissolution has been big plus for community

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 16 January 2015 at 12:00 am

‘What we would have changed? We would have done it sooner’

Photos by Tom Rivers – Don Earle, town supervisor of Seneca Falls, said dissolution has been a positive for that community. He addressed about 200 people today during a discussion at Medina Theatre.

MEDINA – On Jan. 1, 2012, the Village of Seneca Falls was no more. It dissolved.

Nervous residents who feared the change still had their garbage picked up, water came out of the tap, and police officers and firefighters responded to calls.

“It was just like the year 2000 with the Y2K, remember that?” Seneca Falls Town Supervisor Don Earle told about 200 people in Medina tonight. “Nothing happened.”

Earle was invited to Medina by Mayor Andrew Meier to share Seneca Falls’ experience with dissolution. Seneca Falls is similar in size to Medina, with 6,681 residents compared to about 6,065 in Medina.

Both communities have a strong historical fabric and treasured business districts.
Earle said the Village of Seneca Falls was being crippled with an astronomical tax rate that was chasing out residents. The village officials put off needed maintenance and infrastructure upgrades because of the rising tax burden, Earle said.

Residents still worried about losing the village and the dissolution vote barely passed in Seneca Falls with a 1,198-1,112 vote on March 16, 2010.

A dissolved village isn’t a defeated community. Don Earle said Seneca Falls is a much more vibrant community post-dissolution.

A stronger community has emerged, with dramatically lower taxes for the former village residents, a manageable increase for residents outside the town, and improved overall services in Seneca Falls, Earle told a crowd at Medina Theatre.

He remembers the worry with the changeover, that the community somehow would by stymied with critical services no longer provided.

It was a challenge transitioning the village services to the town, but Earle said he and most residents in Seneca Falls only have one regret in the process.

“What we would have changed?” Earle said. “We would have done it sooner.”

Village residents have seen their tax rate fall from about $17 to about $6 per $1,000 of assessed property with dissolution. The outside village residents were paying $1.86 per $1,000. Now they pay about $5 per $1,000 of assessed property (not including school and county taxes).

Although they pay more in town taxes, Earle said the outside-village residents now have an equal voice in what happens in the former village area.

Most village employees did not lose their jobs. They became town employees, although they were paid at a lower rate. Earle said the village had a higher pay structure than in town.

Seneca Falls formed a town-wide police force and added three officers. Shelby Town Councilman Steve Seitz reiterated his concern that a dissolution plan for Medina calls for adding one full-time police officer despite expanding the coverage area from 3 to 98 square miles.

Steve Seitz asks Don Earle about police services in Seneca Falls.

Seitz doesn’t think the Medina plan is realistic. It identifies $277,000 in operational savings and $541,000 in additional state aid for an overall $818,000 benefit in reduced taxes.

The town leaders also don’t trust the state to come through consistently with the $541,000 in aid for the Medina community.

Earle noted that Seneca Falls has received its promised state aid of $535,000 each of the past three years.

“You can never, ever get a guarantee from the State of New York,” Earle said. “All I can say is we’ve gotten it for three years and there is no indication it will be cut.”

Shelby and Ridgeway town officials have said the $277,000 is too little for combined budgets of about $11 million. That’s less than 3 percent in savings.

In Seneca Falls, the community found more savings than what was projected in the plan. The town found it could streamline operations and was able to reduce a few positions, Earle said.

The Seneca Falls example isn’t the best comparison for the Medina dissolution, said Andina Barone, a public relations consultant for the towns of Ridgeway and Shelby. She noted the Village of Medina is about half in Shelby and half in Ridgeway, making it more challenging for a seamless transition.

Seneca Falls also has a large landfill and revenue from that helps drive down taxes in that community, Barone said.

Earle said villagers in Seneca Falls didn’t get a break in their village taxes from the landfill. Once the village dissolved, they were better able to receive the financial benefit of the landfill, he said.

Even without that landfill money, the village tax rate would have dropped from $16.93 to $9.18 per $1,000, he said.

Medina resident Dick Berry said the towns should provide more services to village residents, who are already paying $1.1 million in taxes to the towns of Shelby and Ridgeway.

Seneca Falls hasn’t lost its heritage because of the dissolution, Earle said. He noted Old Forge also hasn’t lost its identity, even though that Adirondacks community dissolved in the 1930s and now a hamlet in the Town of Webb.

Seneca Falls, especially the villagers, are experiencing immediate tax savings with dissolution. The bigger benefits will come in the years ahead, Earle said.

“The long-term benefits are going to be tremendous,” he said. “You’re operating as one. You’re not competing against each other.”

Earle was asked about shared services talks between the village and town in Seneca Falls. It was a fruitless and frustrating exercise that wasn’t going anywhere.

“People don’t want to give up power,” Earle said. “When they don’t want to give up power, shared services really don’t work.”

Medina Mayor Andrew Meier said shared services haven’t resulted in much progress for nearly three years. He and other village residents noted the village pays $1.1 million in taxes to Ridgeway and Shelby, without getting anywhere close to $1.1 million in services.

Village Trustee Marguerite Sherman said she is optimistic the village and two towns can achieve significant savings with shared services. The two towns are serious in wanting to plow village streets and provide other highway services, which would be a big savings for Medina, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Sherman said.

She wants the community to give shared services more time before voting for dissolution.

Shelby Volunteer Fire Company President Gary Lamar states his support for the Medina Fire Department, saying the group provides critical fire and ambulance services in western Orleans County.

Earle said one of the biggest challenges with dissolution was the aging village infrastructure and equipment. The village didn’t have the capital to keep up with roads, sewers, waterlines, 10-wheel trucks and other big ticket items, he said.

The town has made an inventory of infrastructure and equipment and is working to establish a schedule for upgrades.

A dissolution committee in Medina has suggested creating special taxing districts for village debt, a fire district, a town-wide police force for the two towns, an ambulance corporation that would contract with the fire district to continue the existing service, and an LDC (local development corporation) for water and sewer.

Earle said he didn’t like the idea of an LDC, of creating that layer of government.

The other taxing districts aren’t outside the norm in local government, Meier said. He noted the towns using special districts for their numerous water districts, as well as lighting and fire services.

Medina Mayor Andrew Meier

Medina residents will vote on dissolution from noon to 9 p.m. on Tuesday at the Senior Center. Meier said he hopes it’s a first step to reducing government layers and driving down taxes in the community. He would like to then see the two towns work towards a merger.

The village is currently solvent and paying its bills, Meier said in response to a question.

However, the taxes are much higher within village borders, compared to residents who live outside village lines in the towns of Shelby and Ridgeway.

“The problem with the village, by the mere virtue of its existence, is we’re setting our residents up for double taxation,” Meier said. “That dramatically increases taxes for village residents.”