State gives limited info on village-town merger
TUPPER LAKE — After a public information meeting with a state representative Wednesday night, the discussion around town-village consolidation is slightly more informed and even more complicated.
Around 60 Tupper Lakers and the village and town boards attended the meeting at the Middle-High School auditorium to discuss the possibility of performing a consolidation study in Tupper Lake.
If the residents and boards of Tupper Lake want to consolidate their two governments — make them coterminous or dissolve the village — there are two options, but the state rep only had information on the latter, which a village board trustee referred to as a “nonstarter.”
The village board has been behind the recent push for consolidation, and its members have essentially ruled out the village dissolution option. Trustee Ron LaScala has pitched the idea of a coterminous government, which other board members and residents wanted more information on.
However, the representatives leading the meeting had very little information on this topic and were unprepared to discuss it.
Studying for a study
What was determined at the meeting was that if the village is to decide to commission a study of what the pros and cons of the different consolidation plans might be, its leaders are going to need more information first.
Village Mayor Paul Maroun said he is not in a rush to set up a study.
“I’m not going to spend $50,000 of taxpayers’ money on a gamble until I’m a little more sure,” he said.
There have been informal studies done by Tupper Lakers in the past, as consolidation has been a topic of discussion around town for decades.
“Back in 1980 when I went to work at the village, people were talking about consolidation, dissolution, joining village and town, sharing services with the highway department,” town Supervisor Patti Littlefield said at the start of the meeting.
If a study is commissioned, the village would apply to the state for grant assistance and hire an outside consultant. A committee would be set up to digest the information gathered by that consultant and decide what to do with it. John Demarest, the local government specialist from the state Department of State at the meeting, said this committee should represent many different facets of Tupper Lake, especially the town.
The committee would decide to consolidate the two governments or not.
Carrie Tuttle, the director of engineering for the Development Authority of the North Country, said performing a study does not guarantee there will be a consolidation vote. Demarest said every year he sees a handful of communities consolidate and a handful that don’t.
If the committee chooses not to consolidate, Tuttle said the information gathered could still be used for smaller, department-level consolidations.
Despite the village’s stated lack of interest in dissolving the village, information about that and the phrase “if you dissolve” kept coming up, as it is the information the state usually distributes.
“I keep hearing ‘dissolve, dissolve, dissolve,'” LaScala said, “but I think the village board wants to know more about coterminous than dissolution because I think dissolution is a nonstarter.”
Trustee Clint Hollingsworth echoed that point later.
“I will speak for myself, but I would drop dead of shock if my board at the village voted to dissolve the village,” Hollingsworth said.
Dissolution and coterminous government
Dissolution is a increasingly common practice in New York state, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has encouraged communities to remove a layer of government, offering incentives to do so. Coterminous governance is pretty rare. Demarest said he has never personally seen a community do it before, and that he had very little knowledge of the process.
According to the DOS website, there currently are five coterminous town-villages in New York: Mount Kisco, Harrison and Scarsdale in Westchester County, Green Island in Albany County and East Rochester in Monroe County.
LaScala asked who would vote on a coterminous referendum: villagers, town residents or both.
“I haven’t looked,” Demarest said.
George Cordes, who was sitting in the sound booth in the back of the room, said he was able to search for that information on the web on his phone during the meeting and got an answer when the general public there did not.
For dissolution, the village board would vote on whether or not to hold a referendum, pick a date to dissolve, then only village residents would vote.
Tuttle said there are several ways to establish a coterminous government with different voting methods.
However, of the four methods of establishing a coterminous government on the DOS website, only one applies to Tupper Lake’s situation. The others involve either creating a village in a town with no existing villages, requesting the state Legislature to adopt a special act or dividing an existing town into two towns.
The method LaScala wants involves the village annexing all of the adjacent territory in the town, essentially expanding its boundaries to become coterminous with the town. This procedure requires approval of both the existing village and town governing boards, plus the approval of the voters at a referendum held in the outlying territory which is to be annexed, according to the DOS website.
Fred Schuller, who lives in the town but owns properties in the village, had questions and comments on voting, unhappy that he currently can’t vote in the village. Under a one-government system, all Tupper Lakers would vote on everything together.
LaScala said his desire for coterminous governance is more about government efficiency than tax savings.
“The number-one thing I hear from people from the town about us in the village is if they don’t like something that’s going on in the village, if the village is doing something like building a fire hall, they didn’t get a vote,” LaScala said. “This is why I’m pushing this coterminous thing so much. The tax savings of coterminous I don’t think are going to be a great, vast amount, but the efficiency of the government … is where we will be better.”
For more information on coterminous government, visit the DOS website at www.dos.ny.gov/cnsl/lg06.htm.
LaScala asked how many studies have been done on communities with municipal electric, which the Tupper Lake village government offers. He said he is worried that if the village dissolves, residents would lose municipal electric. Another resident said this was the number-one question he had.
Demarest said he has never done a study with municipal electric and was not sure what would happen. Tuttle said the town of Massena has municipal electric and is currently conducting a study.
“I honestly think you could get an answer to that pretty quickly before you do the study,” Tuttle said. “It’s a legal opinion.”
On Friday Maroun said he will be reaching out to the New York Power Authority to ask for its thoughts.
“Nobody should be losing services along the way,” Demarest said.
Bob Holder asked for the “batting average” of the communities that have consolidated and, school Superintendent Seth McGowan asked for data on the long-term effects of consolidation.
“Has anyone ever looked at how taxes over the next 20 years have maybe rebounded with an elastic effect, or have they remained lower?” McGowan asked.
Demarest said the state has no long-term data on the results of consolidation but said it is starting to study that now. He said he could offer a list of communities that have consolidated and people could call their leaders to ask.
“I’m listening to the success stories of consolidations. Can you tell me about situations where it hasn’t worked for the community?” former town councilman Jim Kucipeck asked.
Tuttle said the system of studying consolidations and not passing ones that are not widely agreed upon has worked well and that she did not know of any failures.
“(The study’s job is) to take stuff that’s really complicated and simplify it in a way that the decision-makers have the information available to them so they can decide what’s best,” Tuttle said.
Jim Moody asked, since a town cannot operate a fire department, if the village dissolves, would the town have to create a fire district?
“So you get rid of one government and create another, basically,” Moody asked.
“Yes,” Demarest said.
He asked if the town would need to create civil service positions for village employees to fill if the village dissolves. “Yes” was the answer again.
He also asked if the village’s loans on large equipment purchases, like dump trucks and loaders, would carry over for village taxpayers if it dissolves. Demarest said village residents would have to finish paying those debts off. Tuttle said the fund balance would stay, too. Demarest suggested selling equipment before a dissolution.
“I think that it was really a waste of time,” town resident John Klimm said at Thursday’s town board meeting.
“You’re the only one out of 60 people that attended that thinks that way, that I have talked to,” Littlefield said.
“It was informative to a point,” Klimm said.
Klimm said he wants to keep things the way they are, with no consolidation.
“This certainly is a lot to take in, a lot to digest,” Littlefield said at the end of Wednesday’s consolidation meeting. “I know that there was a lot of information for both boards to consider, most particularly the village.”
Maroun said there is still more information he wants before taking a vote on whether or not to conduct a study. If the board does not believe it will be successful, it will not vote for a study, he said.
The process of studying, deciding and voting would take several years no matter what route is chosen.
“The real reason for the study and having a broad representation on the (committee) is to allow people to know what’s going on,” Demarest said. “The more people that know, they’ll be talking to their friends and to their neighbors and telling them what’s going on.”