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Towns should be part of village’s solution

July 17, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

The idea of making Saranac Lake a city is a solution - maybe not the best one, but a contender for sure - to a real and abiding problem: the inability of this village to control its own destiny because it is always politically outnumbered by the three towns and two counties that have footholds in it.

It was obvious these towns' supervisors were going to blast the city idea, but we appreciated the frankness with which they did so. They could have been quiet and passive-aggressive about it, but they're more honest than that. They came right out and said, essentially, "No way - that would take away tax revenue from us."

But they don't earn or deserve that revenue, and they know it.

What was most noteworthy about a meeting on the subject Wednesday was that North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi, St. Armand Supervisor Joyce Morency and Harrietstown Supervisor Larry Miller did not dispute - and Politi outright agreed - that their towns tax Saranac Lake villagers but spend little to none that revenue on services for those villagers. They let the village do that.

That's a very cut-and-dry case of taxation without compensation - an injustice. They are milking Saranac Lake villagers to subsidize services to other communities.

The Essex County towns, especially, treat this village as a cash cow. Except for a few tiny contributions to community groups, too often grudgingly given - the North Elba board grilled the Saranac Lake Youth Center to justify a $500 contribution this week - the only substantial service they provide is property assessment, and the whole purpose of that is to collect more taxes.

Meanwhile, these towns are generous with public facilities in Lake Placid and Bloomingdale. St. Armand built a youth center in Bloomingdale, and North Elba helps fund one in Lake Placid. The North Elba Parks District does wonderful things in Lake Placid but nothing here - even as Saranac Lake struggles to keep up numerous parks, tennis courts and a money-losing downhill ski center.

Harrietstown is less guilty of this. It provides an airport, a cross-country ski center and a beautiful town hall downtown, often used for public events, in return for some of villagers' tax contributions.

There is also the injustice of taxation without representation. North Elba has always represented the interests of Lake Placid, and St. Armand has represented the interests of Bloomingdale. There is no Saranac Lake village resident on either the North Elba or St. Armand town board. The closest is St. Armand Councilman Sam Grimone, who lives just outside the village line. Also, Saranac Lake's roughly 2,000 Essex County residents - more than most of the county's towns - have no representation at the Essex County Board of Supervisors. The North Elba and St. Armand supervisors do not stand up for this village they way they do boldly for their hometowns. Former Supervisor Shirley Seney's unhesitant support for moving North Country Community College's main campus to Lake Placid (a real estate deal brokered by Politi) sent this message loud and clear.

Again, Harrietstown does better at identifying with the village. Its board has several village residents and meets in the town hall downtown. The town board has at least talked about sharing services with the village, although none of these efforts have stuck, and has also teamed up with the village on comprehensive planning. North Elba does planning with Lake Placid but not Saranac Lake, and St. Armand doesn't have local planning at all - which leaves open the possibility of unchecked sprawl development on that side of the village, a possible concern to villagers.

Also, in Franklin County, Saranac Lake does have a legislator at the table with voting power.

All this is to say that in Saranac Lake's bizarre division by two counties and three towns there are problems, systemic injustices, that Saranac Lakers have been trying to right. There are certainly options other than forming a city. There could be a political solution in which Saranac Lakers run robust slates of candidates for town offices. Towns could pass laws agreeing to no longer collect taxes in the village, except for clearly defined services such as assessment. But that's not enough. A city is a legitimate option. So is annexing the Essex County side of the village into Franklin County and Harrietstown, which was dismissed by the Government Restructuring Committee as too long and complex, but it would clarify the village's way forward. Dissolving the village is not an option because that would leave everything to three towns that don't work together and don't, for the most part, want to serve Saranac Lake.

Another option would be for villagers to sue the towns for taxation without compensation or representation. That's how serious this is.

This is a good opportunity to highlight that the current status quo is unjust. The towns are culpable for that. We were glad to see town leaders at the table Wednesday. Now they need to be part of the solution.

If not, the village will have a better case to make to the state Legislature when it tries to become a city.



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