Updated: 02/22/2014 3:00 PM
Created: 02/22/2014 11:56 AM WHEC.com
By: Associated Press
Town court in Glenville is about four miles from village court in Scotia, and combining the two local courts near Schenectady seemed to make sense. But then issues popped up over increased caseloads, conflicting court times and an added financial burden on the town.
"What we found was there really wasn't an efficiency as much as there was a shift of costs to one municipality," said town supervisor Christopher Koetzle.
Combining local services has always been politically and logistically tricky. Now Gov. Andrew Cuomo has upped the ante in Albany's long-running effort to get cities, towns, villages and counties to consolidate or share services such as law enforcement, firefighting and schooling. Under his new plan, if there's no cost-saving agenda from local officials, their homeowners won't get tax rebates designed as incentives to promote action.
The municipal officials who would be on the hook for executing the plans say they support the concept, but foresee challenges.
"I do agree with the governor that there's just too much government out there," said Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli. "But ... it's very, very difficult when you try to do consolidation. I think a lot of people like their town, they like their village."
Cuomo's budget proposal calls for tax rebates this year to eligible homeowners who live in school districts that stay within the 2 percent cap on property tax increases. The rebates would make up for the amount of the property tax increase, creating a tax "freeze."
Cuomo's plan would increase the pressure on schools and municipalities in their second year in the program, when they also would be required to come up with cost-saving plans for consolidating or sharing services. It's the governor's way of pushing along the politically difficult task of paring down duplicative local government operations, which he says are a driver of higher property taxes.
"We have too many local governments in this state and they are suffocating the state in high property taxes," Cuomo said Wednesday on Long Island.
The 2012 federal Census of Governments reported there were 3,452 active local governments - including counties, municipalities, school districts and special districts - ranking it ninth in the nation.
Moriah Town Supervisor Tom Scozzafava predicted the rebate checks will be a powerful incentive for local officials, especially if homeowners in neighboring towns are benefiting.
"If they're getting a $500-$600 check in the mail and the people of Moriah aren't getting a check in the mail, how long do you think I'm going to be in office?" he asked with a laugh.
But like other local officials, Scozzafava hopes the proposal will take into account the efficiencies they have already put in place.
Scozzafava said his Adirondack town has already taken over police and other services for the village of Port Henry - sorts of moves that are common statewide. A survey last year by Cornell University researchers of 946 cities, counties, towns and villages in New York found more than two-thirds shared 911 service and roughly half shared fire, public transit, library or road and highway services.
Cornell's Mildred Warner said sharing services is hugely common in New York. Far rarer is two governments consolidating, such as when voters dissolve a village into the surrounding town. For instance, the village of Altmar in central New York formally dissolved last year.
Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente said one big challenge is getting local governments on the same page. His central New York county has 26 towns, 19 villages and 3 cities.
"There's got to be a willingness with the multiple jurisdictions to get to the threshold that kicks in the rebate and that's going to be very hard to do, almost impossible in certain areas," said Picente.
Local officials say the new pressure to cut comes as they continue to face costly mandates ranging from preschool to pensions. And both local officials and state lawmakers who are considering the governor's proposal have questioned how the rebate program would be coordinated with so many layers of overlapping government. The Cuomo administration said their plan is solid.
Still, Scozzafava gives Cuomo credit for taking the issue on.
"He's taken on an issue that past governors just touched it but then saw that it was hot, so backed away," he said.