State should reward communities that have been sharing services

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 11 February 2014 at 12:00 am


Governor’s incentives for municipal cooperation come a little late for Orleans

File photo by Tom Rivers – The village of Albion Department of Public Works paves West State Street on Sept. 11, 2013 with help from the highway departments from Orleans County and the towns of Albion, Barre and Gaines, which all hauled dump trucks full of blacktop.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo frequently says New York has too many layers of government, and those entities – 10,498 in all – are a prime reason for the state’s high property taxes.

“You just have to reduce that bureaucracy,” Cuomo told reporters last month. “You can’t feed that many mouths every morning.”

As part of his state budget proposal he has offered incentives for municipalities to share services and resources, including enticements to consolidate. That sounds like a good thing, some state funds to urge local municipalities to share resources to ease local taxes.

Orleans County governments have been doing a lot of what the governor would like to see, and we’ve been doing it for years. Unfortunately, for Orleans and the local towns and villages, we did it before the governor’s big speech, so we won’t get incentives.

“We’re being punished for being a leader in this area,” said Chuck Nesbitt, the county’s chief administrative officer. “We’ve been doing these things pretty much consistently.”

The state, if it’s going to offer money for shared services, should recognize communities that have been doing this for years. We deserve some funds, retroactively.

Here is some of what happens in Orleans County with shared services:

The village of Medina abolished its court system and now the towns of Shelby and Ridgeway run a consolidated court that meets in the Shelby Town Hall. The three entities had six justices about seven years ago and now there are two. The town of Yates also has dropped from two to one judge and has an agreement with the western Orleans towns for their judge to step in when needed.

The village of Albion also abolished its court with those duties shifted to the towns of Albion and Gaines. In Gaines, there is now one justice, Bruce Schmidt, when there used to be two.

The village, town and county highway departments share equipment and manpower for building roads, clearing ditches and other big jobs. That spares the municipalities from each paying for a full arsenal of loaders, excavators and dump trucks.

The county has handled all of the dispatch calls for more than 15 years. Medina used to have dispatchers before shifting the service to the county. In other counties, some towns and villages still have dispatching units when the service could be handled at a county-wide level.

The towns of Albion and Gaines no longer have their own assessors on the town payroll. The two towns contract with the county for the service.

Orleans County manages the solid waste contract for all 10 towns and four villages. That gives us buying power and helps get us a better deal for pickup with garbage and recyclables. It also means fewer taxpayer dollars go to people managing multiple contracts in the county.

Orleans County and Genesee County share the same health department director, Paul Pettit. They are the only two counties in the state doing this.

Orleans contracts with Genesee to run the youth bureau for Orleans. Genesee also is paid by Orleans to maintain the county’s tax maps. Nesbitt said all of these agreements with Genesee save Orleans money compared to the county cost for doing he service by itself. The agreements also provide some revenue for Genesee.

In an internal restructuring, Orleans combined its buildings and grounds department with the highway department.

The governor would like to see neighboring municipalities share back office functions, procurement and other services. If municipalities agree to abide by the governor’s 2 percent property tax cap, homeowners would get a 2 percent tax rebate in the first year. In the second year, homeowners would only qualify for the credit if the municipality also submits a plan to consolidate or share services with their neighbors.

The governor’s proposal has been criticized by some county leaders around the state. They insist Cuomo and the State Legislature could best reduce local property taxes by reining in the costs with some state mandated programs, such as Medicaid, rather than casting blame on the local governments.

The state should take a look at each county and the shared services that already exist. These villages, towns and counties are saving the state money with pared down workforces. That’s less state pension and other salary and benefit costs for taxpayers.

State officials should develop a rubric or formula for those savings and give some of that money back to the local communities that have been leading by example.