At the stroke of midnight, Jan. 1, 2011, a 155-year-old Saugerties institution ceased to be. Its dissolution was the subject of years of debate and numerous studies. It finally happened because the Great Recession made its continued existence untenable. There were many who feared its absence would lead to a decrease in service and a loss of identity, but voters approved it by a 2-to-1 margin.
That institution was the Saugerties Village Police Department. Four years later, it’s safe to say its dissolution and the expansion of the town department has been a success. Even its advocates assumed there would be some grumbling about police presence in the village. How could such a big change happen without any complaints? But there were none. Village taxes fell significantly, and four years later, the police department is still operating at a lower cost than the combined village and town 2010 police budgets. Further, the department has been praised for its efficiency and professionalism, earning state accreditation.
Back in 2011, as it became clear police service had been maintained with lower costs, it seemed obvious that the next order of business would be to consider consolidating other town and village departments and, ultimately, dissolution of the village itself as government entity. Gov. Andrew Cuomo assumed office that year and announced an expansion of incentives for municipal consolidation. A grant had paid for the outside study that made the case for police consolidation. Under Cuomo’s programs, further money would be awarded to cushion transition costs. Village officials, when asked, always said they would look at consolidation “where it made sense” and a few even offered their preferred options.
And then… nothing. No studies have been done, outside or in-house. To our knowledge, there has not even been a serious public discussion of the issue at the board level in this time.
We believe the time has come to have those discussions and the March 18 village election is the forum.
A growing business periodically reorganizes itself due to internal and external factors. Its initial structure usually reflects the specific need it was created to fill, and it must be adapted to meet changes in circumstances. Failure to do so results in inefficiency and a competitive disadvantage.
The development of the Saugerties village and town has been similar to other Upstate New York villages and towns. The village was the first to establish a police department and other vital services. The surrounding town, mostly farms, needed roads and not much else. But over time, the town became more like the village. Town residents were essentially village residents with more land. They wanted all the services village residents had.
Today, the town is a much larger operation than the village. Village taxpayers are also town residents and pay most of the same town taxes the town residents do. The town and village maintain separate courts, highway departments (called department of public works in the village), building and recreation departments. The village has a separate board of trustees, mayor, planning board and various advisory boards, clerk, treasurer and administrative staff, but as a part of the town, also helps pay for the town clerk, receiver of taxes, supervisor, board and administrative staffs.
If water and sewer service are removed from consideration — because they are paid through user fees in the village and the areas of town that buy water from the village — as well as library and ambulance — which affect town and village residents equally — the basic services of local government guaranteed to town and village residents are virtually identical.
For this, village residents pay 25-30 percent more (see infographic). This fact alone should compel further study.
In the three elections held since 2011, the trustee and mayoral races have all been unopposed. This is both a symptom and cause of lack of public involvement in village government. Attendance at board meetings is low and policies are rarely questioned. (Last fall’s proposed dissolution of the Historic Review Board was a notable exception.) The village doesn’t have Democrats or Republicans. There is only one organized party, the New Vision Party, which actively seeks candidates to run for office.
In the town, the situation is different. There is an active opposition, at least in election years, which scrutinizes the town’s agenda and abstracts. Members of opposing parties write letters to the editor and op-eds which provide a framework for understanding the philosophy behind decisions made by the board. Contracts and other paperwork are the subject of Freedom Of Information Law requests.
The result? Voter turnout of 43 percent in the last town election vs. an average of 3.4 percent in the last three village elections.
A natural consequence of a lack of scrutiny is a tendency toward a more relaxed administration. It’s possible this may explain why village services are most costly. Perhaps, in some cases, the same job could be done with less — economies of scale. Perhaps department budgets and compensation packages might look different if they were negotiated with the knowledge that a member of an opposing party would immediately publicize them.
We have certainly seen cases of personnel spending in the town questioned in this way. According to SeeThroughNY.com, which lists the salaries of public employees, there are several examples of village officials earning more money than what appears to be their town equivalent. It’s possible the comparison is not appropriate. In any case, it should be examined and explained as part of an overall consolidation study.
How does the town highway department compare with the village department of public works in terms of manpower, responsibilities and budget? It stands to reason that it is possible two relatively departments with the same basic mandate operating in a small town might be able to be administered more efficiently if combined. (After all, when do we ever split a single department into two for the sake of efficiency?) This is certainly worthy of consideration.
True, some of the discussion surrounding these topics can be impolite. Indeed, the constant questioning – often for political rather than good government motivates – is part of the reason town politics can be so bitter. (The 2013 election season was widely considered the least civil in recent memory.) But that is democracy. If a democracy is functioning, and not flush with money or conquest, it is messy. Its tendency toward slander, personal attacks and bad manners is one reason it went out of fashion between the years of Caesar and Thomas Jefferson. But however debased it may be, political debate and public scrutiny function as necessary correctives to a government’s bad tendencies which are, after all, human tendencies. Without a market to demonstrate the competitive advantage of alternative solutions, it’s up to the members of a community to provide alternatives to the current system. If public involvement in village government continues in its present state, consideration should be given to letting the town absorb it to assure higher voter turnout and a vital opposition. To advocate for this is not to attack the current village government but to call for what is a necessary component of any functioning democracy.
We hope by Feb. 10 additional candidates interested in this issue will file petitions to run for trustee or mayor. Municipal consolidation is not the only village issue, but it is the most important one not being given sufficient consideration. There is no downside to studying its advantages and disadvantages. Indeed, the study would likely be paid for and the recommendations are not binding. All that is needed is for someone to get the ball rolling. That could be a challenger (petitions available at Village Hall, 43 Partition St., 75 signatures needed) or an incumbent. It doesn’t matter who starts the debate, but with the cost of living and the amount of Saugerties students in poverty increasing while most incomes remain stagnant, it’s a debate Saugerties needs to have — and it doesn’t have to wait for the next fiscal catastrophe.