FULTON COUNTY — The Fulton County Shared Services Panel reconvened for the first time in 2018 earlier this month to begin creating a plan to save tax dollars through sharing of government services.
The panel, which consists of the heads of all of the municipalities in the county, discussed forming subcommittees to examine a number of potential tax-dollar saving initiatives, including: sharing garbage trucks, the county’s Smart Waters water sharing initiative, towns contracting with the county for property tax assessment, sharing tax collection computer software and joint purchasing of energy-efficient street-lighting systems such as LEDs.
One topic that did not get much traction was the perennially controversial idea of police and fire department consolidation. Fulton County Administrator Jon Stead said several comments were made about the idea, some by him, but the panel took no action on the topic. He said the topic of forming a subcommittee to explore the potential savings from merging the city police departments was briefly discussed by Johnstown Mayor Vern Jackson, who said his city Common Council has no interest in consolidation.
“After that, I just said, someday a full countywide police force might be something we could look at, but that’s probably a long ways down the road,” Stead said. “I said if that was ever going to be studied, I’m sure that would require us to get a consultant or somebody who knows more than Jon Stead on that issue, or something like that, but we didn’t vote on that.”
One of the biggest advocates for studying police and potentially fire department consolidation is shared services panel member Gloversville Mayor Dayton King. King expressed frustration at the unwillingness of local officials to consider major government consolidation as a means of lowering the local property tax burden.
“If we can’t even study it, how are we going to do it? I’m willing to study any of this stuff. I want to get out of the way, and make this happen,” King said.
Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated that counties and local governments form shared services panels and look for ways to share government services and reduce the local property tax burden. New York state wanted shared services plans submitted by October of 2017, but allowed counties that wanted an extra year to come up with a savings plan to wait until 2018.
Fulton County was among the counties that wanted more time. The county shared services panel voted unanimously to issue a report to the state in 2017 asking for the additional year and proposing several potential savings initiatives, including a recommendation that the cities of Gloversville and Johnstown create a joint commission to study the potential savings of merging the police and fire departments to get fresh data.
The last study of consolidating the departments was done in 1993 and showed the two cities could save $375,188 annually, in 1993 dollars, by merging departments, with Johnstown saving the most at $258,682 and Gloversville pocketing $108,507.
Stead said neither city acted on the panel’s recommendation to form a joint commission to study the issue.
“They took no action, and didn’t follow through on that. That’s why I brought it up again. I said ‘What do you think guys? Can we do that again? It was in the report.’ But apparently, from the statement he made, the mayor of Johnstown doesn’t think there is any value in doing that,” Stead said.
James Groff, the chairman of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors and the chairman of this year’s shared services panel, said he would like the group form a subcommittee to explore the idea of a countywide police department. Groff is the supervisor from the town of Northampton and a retired sheriff’s deputy. He said thinks if the heads of all of the counties police agencies sat down and looked at the issue they would see the potential gains for a countywide police department.
“I would like to see them at least sit down and talk about it, I don’t know if they will or not, but they should. I think a countywide police department is more feasible than just the two cities and I think there are funds available, and if you really sit down and look at the pros and cons of it, like they did 20 years ago, you’ll see that the pros outweigh the cons by a lot,” Groff said.
King said he favors exploring both a countywide consolidation of services or consolidation between the cities of Johnstown and Gloversville.
“I’m willing to work with the county and go around the city of Johnstown, if that’s what needs to happen,” King said.
Jackson said he isn’t against studying the potential savings from consolidation, but wouldn’t commit to a timetable of when to conduct such a study.
“Not right now,” Jackson said. “I have stated publicly that the people of Johnstown are not interested in consolidating any departments, so I’m listening to the people of this city. If they want to start a study, as part of this new process, that’s fine — we can look at a study. I’m not opposed to that. I’m opposed to the consolidation. I’m still in favor of countywide shared services.”
King said he intends to aggressively push for Gloversville’s Common Council to move ahead with a study of consolidating the police and fire departments of the two cities, with or without Johnstown’s participation.
“We’ll probably pass a resolution to go into a study, and we’ll ask Johnstown to pass the same one; again I anticipate that they won’t. I can’t speak for them,” King said. “I’d like to at least spend a couple dollars and know what the results of that study would say, because I think what it’s going to tell us is we’re going to save a bunch of money and people won’t need to lose their jobs.”
Stead said he does not foresee the county shared service panel creating a subcommittee to explore the police issue, but he said last year the panel did include in its report a package of long-term goals the municipalities should consider, including a five- to 10-year process of exploring countywide policing. Stead said New York state only has two countywide police departments, in Suffolk County and Nassau County, partly because it’s part of the state constitution that counties have elected sheriffs. He said creating a countywide police force would likely require voter referendums and a lengthy process to establish a strategy for creating such an agency.
Stead said the Fulton County Shared Services Panel has not yet set its next public meeting date, and will likely meet in subcommittees first before reconvening the full panel.
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