With Gov. Cuomo announcing new incentives for municipal consolidation, what is the state of the issue among the elected representatives of the town and village of Saugerties?
At present, there is widespread support for consolidation in theory, but no active initiatives. Local officials say they’d support consolidation where it makes sense; meaning, where money is saved and service is maintained. They point out that determining where it makes sense would involve a detailed cost/benefit analysis. That could mean bringing in an outside consultant, or several months of late nights poring over documents by a trustee or councilman.
In most cases, consolidation means folding a village department in under a town department. Therefore, the initiative would likely come from the village, says Supervisor Greg Helsmoortel. “We’re willing to talk,” he said. “It would have to come from them.”
In two months, three of the village’s six trustees will stand for election. Terry Parisian, Don Hackett and Vince Buono all mentioned consolidation as an important issue in 2012, and all still feel it’s important.
For Parisian, the best candidate is the justice court. Consolidating the police department but keeping the court separate has led to confusion. Maintaining the space in the village hall and staff necessary to run a separate court may be more expensive than a single court, says Parisian. If reelected, he’d pursue that issue this coming year.
“I’d put together a committee or ask the finance people to put together a spreadsheet showing what the courts cost,” he said. “That’s my course of action.”
He said that’s something the village can do in-house.
“I don’t think we need a consultant for this,” he said. “I have started a rough draft expense sheet for the court system.”
For Hackett, it’s the water and waste water departments. This is his area of expertise, as long-time operator of Rhinebeck’s plant. Hackett, as well as other village officials, believes if consolidation were to happen it would make more sense to fold the smaller town operation into the village departments. He said of all the services, “water and waste water are what the village does best.”
Hackett believes consolidation would yield lower rates for town users.
He said the issue came up during a recent meeting between the village and town water departments. The village plans to replace its water meters, and the subject of whether any new model would be compatible with the new meters installed in Glasco was raised. Under a future single department, that would be an important concern, said Hackett.
He said there were some talks with town officials in years past, but there hadn’t been any for the last two years. “I would definitely want to talk to Greg [Helsmoortel] about that again,” he said.
With other departments, trustees and the mayor were more skeptical. Consolidating DPW and the Highway Department seems like a possibility, but they point out that the DPW does many things the Highway Department does not, including leaf pickup, holiday decorations and tree removal in some cases, as well as assisting the village parks and water departments. Consolidation would involve expanding the role of the Highway Department or eliminating these services. “We don’t really think that’s a great marriage,” said Buono.
The village building department has just one employee, Eyal Saad, and the village has very different building codes. So even accounting for a consolidated department adopting those codes, village officials say the workload would still be such that the same amount of personnel would be needed.
Helsmoortel mentioned Parks and Recreation as a possible area, but no village official interviewed cited it.
The governor’s latest incentive involves a two-year property tax freeze for municipalities that consolidate. That could include departments or services, such as administration, payroll and insurance. The freeze would be accomplished through subsidies that would keep taxes the same despite rising costs. Local officials weren’t familiar enough with the new program to comment.
Mayor William Murphy said most people who raise the issue don’t realize how much is already shared between the village, town and school district. He said the DPW works closely with the Highway Department, sharing needed pieces of equipment to avoid each department having to buy duplicates. The village loaned the school district a front-end loader a few years ago to save it from having to purchase one and fixed the flooding situation at the cow-flop field opposite Cahill Elementary. Engineers for the district estimated the job would be over $200,000, said Murphy. The DPW did it at a cost of under $3,000.
“We didn’t need to tell everybody in the world we were doing it,” he said. “That’s just how we work.”
While all agreed the police consolidation was a success, that doesn’t necessarily mean the same approach applied to other departments would continue to yield lower costs. Murphy emphasizes the humble size of village government. Total headcount for the village is 17 full-time employees, including Village Hall staff, with average pay around $15 or $16 per hour.
“We’re looking at consolidation where it makes sense,” said Murphy. “The village is operating now on a $2 million budget. I can’t see it consolidating any more without dissolving the village. And that may happen in the future.”