County governments across the Capital Region are beginning to figure out how to comply with a new state requirement that they oversee development among their communities of countywide municipal shared services plans.
A new law adopted as part of the state budget requires that the chief executives in each of the 57 counties outside New York City convene panels of town supervisors and city and village mayors to come up with plans for sharing municipal services. The goal is to produce local property tax savings.
It is an idea that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has emphasized over the last year, but which some local leaders resist, saying they’re already working to save money, while facing state mandated costs and the limits of the state tax cap.
“We’re going ahead with the process feeling [the timeline] is unrealistic,” said Stillwater Town Supervisor Edward Kinowski, chairman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors.
The state’s timeline calls for initial shared services plans to be developed by Aug. 1, with decisions about accepting or rejecting the plan by mid-October, after reviews by participating communities and public hearings.
By law, county chief executive officers are in charge of developing the plans. In Saratoga County’s case, that’s County Administrator Spencer Hellwig. His office said invitations to an initial meeting of supervisors and mayors will be going out as soon as next week.
Kinowski is among the skeptics, noting that bringing all the parties together could involve putting 30 or more people in a room.
“It will take hours of effort,” said Kinowski, who is the county’s highest-ranking elected official. “How much will it cost to develop this plan? And maybe the savings is only going to be a few thousand dollars.”
Cuomo has often said that he believes there are too many local governments in the state, and money could be saved through eliminating levels of government and having local governments share services.
“Not everyone has to do everything,” Cuomo said May 4, when he signed the shared services plan legislation. “Not every government is a country unto itself. You can find efficiencies among yourselves.”
The legislation includes a major carrot for participating governments: At least in the first year, the state will provide a check matching the savings achieved under the plan.
Cuomo initially wanted to require the plans be subject to countywide public referendums, but that provision was dropped from the final legislation, in part due to opposition from the New York Conference of Mayors, which called the Cuomo proposal “an ill-conceived and counter-productive proposal.”
The concept of having municipalities share services isn’t new. It has been discussed for decades, and sometimes been acted on at the town and village level. There are towns, for example, that purchase salt and gravel together, and share some specialized kinds of highway equipment.
Cuomo last year launched a program under which local governments could compete for grants to fund consolidation plans.
Montgomery County was one of six winners in the first round of that competition, Cuomo announced in February. The county is receiving $50,000 to further develop its plan, and plans to file its Phase II plan by the end of June.
That competition is different from the new shared service plan mandate, but should give the county an advantage in developing the plan, said Andrew Santillo, a spokesman for County Executive Matthew Ossenfort.
“The positive is that we’re already on a track that is pretty speeded up,” Santillo said. “I think the county executive has embraced this as a challenge in maybe how we can do things even more efficiently.”
Schenectady County Manager Kathleen Rooney is in the process of reaching out to mayors and supervisors, said county spokesman Joe McQueen. “We’re in the very early stages,” he said.
In addition to mayors and town supervisors, the county-level panels may include representatives of school systems or special districts like sewer districts, and the legislation says municipal labor union representatives are also to be consulted as the plan is developed.
The plan is due to be submitted to county legislatures or boards of supervisors by Aug. 1, with a certification of estimated property tax savings included. The legislature can modify it, and will be required to hold at least three public hearings, but the plan then goes back to the panel of mayors and supervisors for action.
Before the final vote, each local government head will be able to remove any proposed action involving their local government. The members of the panel then vote, and are supposed to explain their vote in writing. Final action is supposed to be taken by Oct. 15 — just weeks, this year, before local elections will take place.
But local officials generally think the timeline is unrealistic, given the complexity of getting busy leaders together, having them discuss ways to increase efficiency, having them agree on a plan and estimating the potential savings.
“It’s totally ludicrous in the response time,” Kinowski said.
If a plan fails in 2017 or isn’t finished, the counties must try again in 2018, with the same set of deadlines.
There are no financial penalties for not complying, but Cuomo has made clear in his public comments that he expects voters to hold their elected officials accountable if no plan is adopted.
“No one is going to want to go back to their voters in their town or their village and say, ‘Oh yeah, we couldn’t figure out any way to save money,'” Cuomo said at the bill-signing ceremony on Long Island.
Both the Conference of Mayors and the New York State Association of Counties opposed the legislation, but since its passage have issued guidelines for how local plans can be developed.