Tupper trustee presses talk of town-village merger

Ron LaScala is seen in October 2012. (Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)

TUPPER LAKE — Village Trustee Ron LaScala attended a town board meeting on Thursday night to talk to the other governing body about his desire for the two governments to consolidate, asking the town to conduct a study of the viability of coterminus governance.

Although he sparked a conversation at the meeting, communication between the town and village boards on the topic is still sparse.

Town board members, speaking after LaScala left, said they believe it is the village’s responsibility to commission such a study in accordance with state procedure.

Town board members said they were put off by LaScala’s tone, admonitions and previous comments, but they expressed general interest with the idea of consolidating the two governments, making all Tupper Lakers pay one, consistent tax.

Town-village consolidation has come up occasionally in Tupper Lake politics since at least the 1980s, with three studies being done over the decades and numerous town and village residents, government workers and activists trying to call a referendum vote.

LaScala believes that coterminus governance would be better than dissolving the village, instead expanding the village boundary to match the town’s and operating out of one joint municipal office. The consolidation would have to be voted on by the residents of the outlying territory, the town-only residents.

He said it would produce a more responsive and efficient government.

LaScala brought this idea to the town board when he was elected to the village board three years ago and he said has heard no word on it since. LaScala, who is known to be an aggressive debater, spoke Thursday in a restrained but curt voice.

“It’s been studied before; it can be studied again,” LaScala said. “I’ve talked to homeowners on Big Wolf (Lake) that would annex into the village in a minute.”

LaScala said municipal employees would not lose their jobs in a consolidation, just elected officials, as there would be a new, singular board.

“I could very well lose my seat,” LaScala said later.

He asked for the town to do the work researching and setting up the coterminus government.

LaScala asked what the town provides villagers aside from a dog catcher and assessor. The village runs the electric, water, police, fire and public works departments, and the town contracts with the village to extend those services, except police patrolling, to its residents for a price.

“We pay our share to use those services,” town Supervisor Patti Littlefield said.

In a later interview LaScala said savings would only be marginal initially, such as only having one clerk, not paying a town supervisor’s salary and gradually reducing redundant positions.

At the meeting LaScala also commented on the town board’s decision to build an addition on the town hall for around $1,000 per square foot, despite both governments’ long-term desire to move into a combined building.

LaScala called the $437,774 addition to the town hall “shameful” and said the town board could have waited to make a decision, letting people who did not want to walk the formerly treacherous front stairs come in the back on level floor.

“I’m sorry if you folks don’t like some of my comments about the front of your building,” LaScala said to the town board. “That’s the only piece of property in this whole entire community that costs over $1,000 a square foot. Grant money, whatever, it’s money.”

Public comments are kept to five minutes at town board meetings. When LaScala delivered his final remarks, Littlefield asked, “Five minutes up?” When she was told it had been five minutes and five seconds, she said to LaScala, “Good, thank you,” and he got up to leave.

“I guess we don’t get a rebuttal?” Councilwoman Tracy Luton asked as the back door to the town hall closed behind the departing LaScala.

“Why would you?” Councilman Michael Dechene asked.

After the public comment period the board began talking with Ray Bigrow, who came out of retirement to be the new director at Adirondack Adult Center. Littlefield was talking about how she had walked through the center with village municipal electric Superintendent Marc Staves when she returned to town-village relations.

“Just my two cents worth: The village and the town have a very good working relationship, and I don’t want anyone to think otherwise,” Littlefield said.

As an example of the two governments working together, Littlefield talked about Staves finding a grant to help the town upgrade its lighting fixtures and bulbs in the town hall and Maddox building.

Later, Littlefield addressed the public comment again, explaining the difference in the village and town government to high school students who were attending the meeting for Linda Sexton’s government class.

“I feel that I need to make a comment of the scolding that we just took from Mr. LaScala,” Littlefield said. “My understanding is that if anything is to happen with the village — be it consolidate, dissolve or grow — I thought that the village needs to take care of that business because the change is to them.”

She said she and Dechene had talked with Carrie Tuttle from the Development Authority of the North Country earlier in the day about consolidation of services.

Littlefield and several other board members said they are interested in consolidation but cannot know the impact it would have on Tupper Lake unless they study it. They disagreed with LaScala that the town should be responsible for studying it, though.

Councilman John Quinn recommend that the village discuss undertaking a study with DANC, adding that he would be willing to assist and facilitate the process. Quinn said he appreciated LaScala coming and talking to the board, rather than them reading about his thoughts on Facebook or in articles on village board meetings.

Dechene said though the town board is asking the village to take the lead on researching consolidation, it is very interested in being a part of it.

“Five years ago when Patti, John and I were elected on the board we went to new town board training down in Albany and that was the first question we asked.”

Dechene said representatives from the state told him the village has to start the study, since it would be the government expanding to meet the town borders.

LaScala said in a phone interview after the board meeting that he doesn’t think it makes sense for the village to do the study, saying that since the residents of the outlying town would be the ones voting in the referendum, it should be their government that does the study.

“It does not surprise me that they want the village to do something for the town,” LaScala said.

He suggested he may show up to more town board meetings.

He said he would ask the village to do the study itself if the town will not, adding that he has the support of the village board.