A recent discussion in the Ulster County Legislature about setting a public hearing for a proposed local law to provide for the collection of delinquent village property taxes turned into a conversation about the role of village governments in the modern age.
A public hearing on the local law, which would allow Ulster County’s three villages — New Paltz, Saugerties and Ellenville — to opt into a collection process similar to those used by towns and school districts, is scheduled for the next meeting of the Legislature on Tuesday, September 20.
Tax bills are issued by towns each January, and if they remain unpaid by May, they are turned over to the county, which then makes the town whole by paying the delinquent bill to the town and adds the bill amount plus penalties to its rolls the following January. If the taxes are unpaid for three years, the county can take steps to sell the property at auction. School districts issue tax bills in July, turning unpaid bills over to the county in September, with the bill amount plus penalties added to its rolls in January.
At a meeting of the Legislature on Tuesday, August 16, Minority Leader Kenneth Ronk (R-Shawangunk), said the move to allow villages to access the same system instead of carrying the burden of collecting the unpaid taxes themselves, would align with his belief that the time of village government is over.
“Village government is, I think, becoming an obsolete level of government and an unnecessary and expensive level of government in a lot of places,” Ronk said. “In the Village of Saugerties and the Town of Saugerties, and in the Village of New Paltz and the Town of New Paltz you’ve seen a lot of consolidation of services, where there used to be two police departments there’s one police department.”
Joseph Maloney (D-Saugerties), one of the co-sponsors of the local law, agreed.
“In the Town of Saugerties, the Village owns the water and it’s on a piece of property on Town property, and we buy water from them,” Maloney said. “It’s insanity…The lower level you go in government, it seems the more antiquated the process.”
But Dr. Gerald Benjamin, retired associate vice president for regional engagement and director of the Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives at SUNY New Paltz, said that while he himself is a longtime advocate for the dissolution of the Village of New Paltz, Ronk was off base.
“First of all, that legislator should be ashamed of himself,” Benjamin said, adding that Ronk was a former student of his. “Condemning a whole class of government like that without careful consideration doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Benjamin said that while he believed New Paltz might be better served by a single government, that isn’t necessarily the best fit elsewhere.
“I don’t think that all villages need to be abolished as antiquated,” Benjamin said. “Essentially, villages were created to provide extra levels of services to places with concentrated populations, and towns were designed to provide minimum services for places that are highly rural to make sure they had public safety, roads to bring products to market, and so on.”
Benjamin explained that New York’s village governments came about as a response to former city-dwellers demanding some of the same services after moving to the suburbs, but the State Legislature did not give those powers to towns.
“They said, ‘If you want those services, you’ve got to create villages,’” Benjamin said. “But as time passed, that remedy was overrun by demographic change and growth, so the state legislature started empowering towns to do what villages did.”
Benjamin said that while he favors the dissolution of the Village of New Paltz, he commended Village Mayor Tim Rogers and Town Supervisor Neil Bettez for working well together.
“We have some extraordinary leadership in New Paltz,” Benjamin said. “It’s a challenging moment, but the chief executives get along, they’re smart, they’re thoughtful, they bring rational decision-making models to bear on problems. I think what our mayor in the Village has done in the worst system is extraordinary…We’re lucky in that way.”
Rogers, too, touted the collaborative efforts of the Village and Town of New Paltz, adding that it makes sense where they’re separate.
“We share an assessor, we share a court, we share a police department,” Rogers said. “We share a recycling and reuse center, we have recreation centers that are shared. What we have separately is a building department.”
Rogers said that he and Bettez often discuss the possibility of having Village and Town offices next to one another.
“What we both inherited is the fact that the Town offices are in temporary trailers outside of the Village,” Rogers said. “So if we could wave a magic wand and have offices next to each other, even if you didn’t legally combine them, could they share a copier? Could they share a front office window? Could they share some staff? We’ve done that before, and I think that made a great deal of sense. We’re regularly looking for opportunities like that.”
Rogers questioned whether wholly eliminating the Village government would save taxpayers.
“A town is required to have a fire district, which is an additional taxing authority,” he said. “So if you were to have just the Town of New Paltz, then the Village Fire Department would go away. You wouldn’t actually be reducing the number of taxing authorities, it would actually stay the same…And the way fire services are offered in our community is that we have an agreement where the Village Fire Department serves both the Village and the Town outside the Village. It’s essentially a shared service.”
Village of Saugerties Mayor Bill Murphy said the relationships between the Village and Town of Saugerties also work in a similarly collaborative way, and that he and Town Supervisor Fred Costello have a good working relationship. He added that living in a village provides services a town doesn’t, and that dissolution isn’t necessarily the savings people believe it might be.
“People that live in a village, yes, they pay village tax and town tax,” Murphy said. “But they don’t pay the same level of town tax as town residents. A lot of people think when they move from a village to the town, they’re going to get a huge tax break. But even though they’re losing a village tax, the town tax becomes obviously greater because they’re a full-time town resident. It’s not the break you think it is.”
Murphy said he believes that a full consolidation of the Village and Town of Saugerties will likely happen one day, though he believes the move would financially favor people who live in the Village.
“I think the pushback would be from Town residents not getting the tax breaks that Village residents would get if the two were to merge,” Murphy said, citing feedback from the merger of the two entities’ police departments over a decade ago. “The tax break from the police merger was definitely much more beneficial to the Village resident than it was to the Town.”
Murphy said that as long as he’s the mayor of the Village of Saugerties, he’ll continue to look for ways to collaborate with the Town government for the whole community.
“We share services so much already,” Murphy said. “I think there’s a lot of savings that we do on a daily basis, and we’re very conscious of it. So I don’t personally think the Village is a burden.”