Better Together? The $20 Million Question

Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut

Few people would turn down a cool $20 million if it dropped into their laps. Chautauqua County totally agrees. In fact, as NY Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced, your county just won $50,000 to complete a final plan by June 28 that can bring it all home.

The idea is really quite simple – in principle. Find the best government efficiency plan – a better plan than the other five finalists – and it’s “winner-take-all” for $20 million.

The Regional Solutions Commission, created last year by Chautauqua County Executive Vince Horrigan, has identified 12 key projects within Chautauqua County to either merge, consolidate or share services among 23 partner governments, working in teams of 2 or more. Those 12 projects were impressive enough to earn the county top honors and $50,000 as a finalist in Governor Cuomo’s Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition.

Taxes or Jobs?
When each town or district operates its own services, each enjoys its own local control and employs its own people. According to Governor Cuomo, however, that’s an expensive way to run a government. It can be inefficient and uncoordinated and it tends to eat up tax money.

Many people argue, however, consolidating services across town and village lines puts some people out of work and waters down local control. People who understand local issues get replaced by “out-of-town experts” and the distance between local citizens and their government becomes much greater.

The question has simply become: “Is it worth a $20 million prize from Albany to forge ahead with county-wide consolidations, collaborations and shared services?”

Local History – Recent Votes
Apparently, citizens in the Villages of Forestville and Cherry Creek judged consolidation to be their best option as they recently voted to dissolve themselves into the Towns of Hanover and Cherry Creek, respectively. By a slim margin, however, the Village of Sherman rejected the option to merge with the Town of Sherman.

“I am delighted to cite Jamestown’s list [of consolidated services] wherever I go,” Peter Baynes, executive director of NYCOM, the New York Council of Mayors, told the Jamestown Gazette last week.

According to Baynes the City of Jamestown has become NYCOM’s shining model for consolidation of services across the state. Over the last two to three decades, 28 separate city services, from E-911Emergency Dispatching and City Bridge management, to Jamestown Community College sponsorship and City Wastewater Treatment, plus 24 others, have been consolidated, shared and collaborated with Chautauqua County and its neighboring communities to achieve significant savings and efficiency.

Objections and complications have been rare and minor over the years, according to Mayor Teresi’s office in Jamestown. Few local residents may appreciate the enormous savings that resulted from these consolidations. If the city resumed sole control, the new tax burden may be large and immediate.

Legislator Borrello speaking with municipal leaders at the initial Regional Solutions Commission meeting, joined by speakers from NYDOS, Center for Governmental Research and Southern Tier West.

Top Down or Bottom Up?
In County Executive Horrigan’s State of the County address for 2016 he chartered the Regional Solutions Commission chaired by County Legislator George Borrello (R-Irving). It was their work that won the $50,000 award this year to submit a final plan to Albany by June 28. The winning partnership will be announced later this summer.

In his State of the County address in Mayville on Wednesday evening, February 22, Horrigan publically commended Borrello and Horrigan’s Executive Assistant, Dan Heitzenrater, for successfully shepherding Chautauqua County’s winning entry through Phase-1 of the Governor’s competition. “Winning the $20 million…will give the local governments the right tools and funding… the key ingredients they currently don’t have,” Horrigan said.

“That is a great example of local initiative,” Baynes said, “selecting those 12 specific home-grown opportunities for savings and efficiencies in your local economy.” It is a “bottom-up” approach to local problem solving. “Governor Cuomo’s creation of this Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition supports the local control which NYCOM always favors.”

Horrigan has called it an opportunity to “…right-size government services so we can be as efficient as possible.”

Cuomo has repeatedly pointed out that “…the most burdensome tax in New York remains the property tax.” This Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition,” Cuomo said when he announced it, “…is designed to help local governments work together to cut costs, share services and streamline inefficiencies in order to reduce burdens on property taxpayers.”

New York State does run a Local Government Efficiency (LGe) program and a Municipal Restructuring Fund (MRF) program which foster local efficiencies. If local governments cannot create their own cooperative plans, however, the Governor has hinted that “top-down” imposition of a mandate from Albany would require every county in the state – what Baynes labels “an ill-conceived mandate” – to force consolidations. This may also force reductions in New York State Aid & Incentives to Municipalities (AIM) funding, amounting to an annual $715 million lost to local governments. “A new mandate,” Baynes said, “will only make matters worse.”

The Competition
The other finalists in the competition span the entire state of New York, including Madison, Montgomery, Otsego, and Ulster counties and the town of Brookhaven on Long Island.

Secretary of State Rossana Rosado, Distinguished Lecturer in Latin American/Latina/o Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/NYU, has been appointed to select a panel to award the winning plan. This competition is seen by many as a dry run with a huge reward for promoting more collaboration and consolidation across the state and avoiding the burdensome task of imposing top-down economies from Albany.

For more information on other technical and financial assistance which the New York Department of State provides to local governments for projects that increase community competitiveness through taxpayer savings and improved service delivery efficiency, Jamestown Gazette readers can call (800)367-8488 or visit: http://www.dos.ny.gov/LG.