Village, town eye March 19 for New Paltz consolidation vote

(Illustration by Rick Holland)

If it all works out the way the majority of the village and town boards hope, New Paltzians could be heading to the polls on March 19 to vote to consolidate the village and town into one government.

“We have come up with right now a $1.4 million savings should the village and town merge,” said Sally Rhoads, the village’s deputy mayor.

The town and village plan to apply for a grant with the state that could net up to $1 million in aid, which would be used to offset property taxes. But to get there, the two governments must apply for that grant by April.

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During Nov. 1’s special joint meeting of the Town Board and Village Board, a majority of New Paltz’s elected officials voted to set March 19 as a tentative date for the special election — if only to set a clear goal.

Rhoads compared the situation to a college professor setting a due date for a term paper. The professor knows that a looming deadline will inspire a flurry of work that otherwise might not get done.

“Whatever way you want to do it, you know the deadline. And that’s all I’m asking us to do — to set a syllabus, set a timeline,” she said. “Let’s work as hard as we can to get there. We’re not done.”

Village Trustee Brian Kimbiz was one of those who voted to aim for a mid-March election. He noted he didn’t see a downside to having had looked for savings in the village and town budgets — even if voters don’t ultimately support a unified New Paltz.

“I really think that even if consolidation doesn’t go through, we still have the research and we still have the answers,” Kimbiz said. “But I think that if we don’t look at it and don’t move forward — one way or the other — then we’ll never get there.”

Village Board member Stewart Glenn also voted yes. He thinks that New Paltz has given consolidation ample thought through the years.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on this — not only this group, but the steering committee, members of the community, the consultant, all of that,” Glenn said. “We owe it to the community to go full speed to get the work done and see if this is a good idea or not.”

Back in 2009, the town and village received a $50,000 state grant to study consolidation. Plans to either merge the governments or share services have been discussed since then. In 2011, the consolidation question became part of the election — several candidates, including Deputy Mayor Rhoads, Supervisor Susan Zimet and Trustee Glenn, ran on the promise that they’d push to merge the governments.

Consolidation wasn’t a major issue for Mayor Jason West when he campaigned last year. He’s taken a “wait and see” approach, but recently he’s been a vocal critic of the process. He and town Councilman Jeff Logan ended up voting no to set March 19 as a goal for an election.

“I’m actually going to be opposed to this tooth and nail,” he said. “You keep rushing things and shoving things down everybody’s throat.”

Subcommittees composed of volunteers and elected officials have spent the better part of the year going through the two municipalities’ budgets to find where savings would happen if a merger takes place. Most of those sub groups studying consolidation have finished their work and are close to producing final reports.

Deputy Mayor Rhoads and Supervisor Zimet stand by those reports. However, West said he wasn’t convinced.

“I don’t know how legitimate these reports are. I don’t how thorough, how accurate they are. I don’t know the sum total of this report’s meaning for our community,” the mayor said. “I don’t know what the total ballpark figure is — and nobody around this table knows those figures either.”

West said he thought the move to put consolidation up for election in early 2013 didn’t make sense. He accused Rhoads and the others of rushing blindly toward holding a vote on “something we don’t know anybody wants yet.”

Town Councilman Logan also felt pressured by the vote. He noted the original $50,000 grant was to study government efficiency — not necessarily consolidation.

“I’m not saying your numbers aren’t real — I’m not saying any numbers are real,” Logan said. “But it seems to me like everyone’s endgame here is … consolidation’s the only way to do it.”

In the end the councilman voted no, saying he did not know why setting the March 19 goal needed to be memorialized with a formal resolution. “I have no idea what we’re voting for,” he said.

According to Supervisor Zimet, there is a real chance that they might not be able to meet that tight deadline of just more than five months from now. But the town and village could apply for the state funding later.

“If it’s not feasible because there’s too much work that has to be done, then we’re going to blow it and we’ll see what happens,” the supervisor said. “If it’s another year for the $1 million, then so be it.”

A report by the Human Resources Subcommittee states that staffing reductions would likely impact areas of duplicated services — including clerks, highway, buildings and grounds, and the building departments. There would also be obvious reductions to be made in the supervisor’s and mayor’s offices, in bookkeeping and with the planning and zoning boards.

Together the town and village employ 116 people, including full-time and part-time workers, but not seasonal workers. The report recommends cutting 13 employees after the merger, with the majority of them coming from buildings and grounds.