Since January, Montgomery County officials have met with local municipal leaders to hammer out shared services proposals in a bid to attract state consolidation dollars and lower property taxes throughout the county.
County Executive Matthew Ossenfort’s office pulled the roughly dozen proposals together for a presentation this week at Fulton County Community College. Ossenfort spoke to a gathering of town and village officials, some of whom were involved in crafting the proposals, in preparation for a more formal presentation to state officials later this year.
The proposals range from the ambitious -- consolidating the town and village of Canajoharie -- to the mundane -- a countywide tax assessment and the creation of a single equalization rate. Other proposals include building a shared municipal facility at the Beech-Nut site in Canajoharie, and consolidating law enforcement agencies as well as three county departments.
An analysis conducted by the county’s Department of Economic Development and Planning, with assistance from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, found that consolidating the office of mental health and public health would save the county $85,000 annually.
The analysis also found that consolidating the town and village of Canajoharie, which would have to be approved in a referendum, would save up to $330,000 in the first year, substantially due to transferring police functions to the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.
Asked what shared services and consolidation means for potential job loss and attrition, Ossenfort said the impact would be minimal. Taking the proposals to consolidate the town and village of Canajoharie for instance, he said that police and DPW staff are still going to be needed and can transfer to county departments.
“Where you see the efficiency is more of the centralization of the administration, but there’s no major layoffs as part of this plan,” said Ossenfort. “The only area you could see that is, should a local village dissolve the police department?”
“We would look to every opportunity to hire those people at the county,” he said.
Ossenfort said the most important proposal in terms of monetary and time savings is a plan to move all county and local records to a single content management system that can be used by governments at both levels.
“Just being the person who is there everyday watching the operations, going to a digital content management system is going to save so much time and so much money,” said Ossenfort. “That to me is the one that stands out the most.”
The county purchased a content management system last spring, and started a shared services project between the county and the city and town of Amsterdam as well as the town of Florida.
Under the proposal, 70 percent of the estimated 421,000 records -- local common council meeting minutes, building permits and zoning records, planning documents and the like -- would be scanned and entered into the system, with the balance remaining in paper form.
Ossenfort also touted the proposed consolidation of the county’s various court systems as being an important priority for his office. He cited concerns over security at courts in the western portion of the county as a good reason to consolidate, as well as the increased efficiency such a move would bring.
The impetus for consolidating governments in Canajoharie comes from the Municipal Consolidation & Efficiency Competition, a NYS Department of State program that will award $20 million to the county that has the best consolidation plan.
Montgomery County is one of six finalists in the contest, which requires participants to include a consolidation plan for different municipalities as part of the application process. Ossenfort will present the county’s consolidated plan July 19 in Albany. The winner will be announced in September, according to county spokesman Andrew Santillo.
The 500-page plan being presented to the state will be available on the county’s website in the coming weeks, Ossenfort said.
The county is also looking to get matching funds from the state as part of a shared services program built into the 2018 state budget.
Ossenfort commended local leaders that participated in the shared services meetings that have taken place since the beginning of the year, and said “just getting everyone in the same room was a big step in itself.”
He added that even if the county doesn’t win the $20 million, there’s potential to carry out a number of the proposals contained in the overall consolidation plan.
“It’s a grand vision, and it’s not going to be easy work, but it’s achievable without a doubt,” said Ossenfort.
Village of Canajoharie Mayor Francis Avery said he supports consolidating the village and town, as does town of Canajoharie Supervisor Pete Vroman, but that “the devil is going to be in the details.”
"It all has to be balanced, and this is all contingent on the county winning the $20 million [Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition],” said Avery. “If it’s not awarded then life will continue as is. If the $20 million isn’t won there’s no point in it.”
Avery raised concerns about maintaining water and sewer service for town residents, and wondered what might happen to the Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department.
“There’s a lot of things that have to be settled, and I’m only scratching the surface,” he said.“We just have to be sure that we have the village properly protected, and I want agreements in writing. We‘re very interested in all of this, we just intend to be very careful because once were obligated we can’t rescind anything.”
Avery added that regardless of the consolidation contest, the village will continue to work with the county on redeveloping the Beech-Nut site, which the county just voted to foreclose upon.
Ossenfort said he’s hopeful about the county’s chances of snagging the top prize, but even more so about the momentum behind efforts to consolidate and share services.
“I think people understand that the only way we’re going to save money is by working together, and trying to look at delivering services differently,” said Ossenfort. “Just the fact that everyone’s been positive and working together is a great start, and moving forward I’m just hoping to maintain that.”