State Encourages Villages To Consolidate
By Anne Pyburn Craig
Last fall, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $20 million prize for municipal governments that team up to “submit plans demonstrating how government consolidations and innovative restructuring initiatives will yield reductions in property taxes.” Counties have been mandated to create efficiency plans that would look at consolidation of local government services, to be voted on this November. It’s the latest move in a push that’s been gaining momentum for years; with 62 cities, 932 towns, and 542 villages, New York looks to some like an unwieldy mess. “Both the absolute number and ratio of local governments to population is high in comparison to national averages,” notes an October 2006 analysis from the state Comptroller’s Office in a section headed “A Structure No One Would Design Today.”
Consolidation of specific services and departments is pursued by most municipal governments. But when it comes to outright dissolution of a village, feelings can run deep. And if the voters in a village reject dissolution or that town’s voters reject unification in their referendum there has historically been nothing the state can do—except, as seen above, apply the carrot and the stick. “Villages are today the only type of municipality that can be incorporated or dissolved solely by local action,” noted the comptroller’s report, “and thus are the only class that has shown change in the modern era.”
Since the report was written, more villages have been dissolved. At the time of the 2010 census, there were 555; 14 have dissolved since, and two more are in the process. None of these recent dissolutions took place in the Hudson Valley.
A 2008 report from the Center for Research, Regional Education, and Outreach (CRREO) found that village residents in New Paltz pay 22.83 percent more property tax than town residents within the school district. In Saugerties, the difference is 24.9 percent, and in Ellenville, it’s a whopping 47.8 percent. The report also noted that so many variables existed—from tax-exempt properties to the existence of various special districts—that it was hard to directly compare the situations. The only new village to be formed in the past few years, Mastic Beach in Suffolk County, voted to dissolve after just six years, citing lack of funds.
Supervisor Leonard Distel of Wawarsing and Ellenville Mayor Jeff Kaplan both see Ellenville’s dissolution as inevitable. A 2016 revaluation that brought village property taxes into line with the town’s trimmed $9.3 million from the village’s total assessed value. Yet it’s still tough sledding. “There are issues that have to be resolved: village debt, what to do about the police department. The biggest problem is that the village has a $3 million budget and a million of that is for the police,” says Distel.
Wawarsing is served by state police and county sheriffs; the dense, walkable village presents an entirely different set of public safety issues. And there is less tangible resistance also. “A lot of people are scared of change and naturally concerned about losing their positions,” he says. “We’ve been trying to explain to the village trustees that if we don’t do it, the governor will do it for us.” Ulster County Executive Michael Hein has earmarked $50,000 in state grant monies to study a path forward for Ellenville.
New Paltz: Nope
New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers told the New Paltz Times in January of this year that there would be no attempt to revisit the issue of consolidation, an issue that’s been hotly debated over at least the past quarter century. Although the village dissolved its police department decades ago, fire protection, public works, taxation (village residents would see a decrease, but town residents would pay about 10 percent more) have made the question a Gordian knot; numerous studies have considered various choices such as a coterminous government and becoming a city. Mayor Rogers referred to the efforts as a “failed attempt.” A previous effort in the 1990s was rejected by voters.
An editorial on Hudson Valley One in 2015 called for the dissolution of Saugerties, noting that village elections were routinely unopposed and unengaging, while residents continued to fund duplicate boards and court systems. (Policing was taken over by the town in 2011.)
On the east bank
Of the several villages in Dutchess County, none appear to be seriously considering dissolution. Mayor Matt Alexander of Wappingers Falls explains his domain’s special circumstances: “The village splits right along its center; we’re half in the town of Wappingers and half in the town of Poughkeepsie…We’ve been successful in consolidating sewer with a tri-municipal coalition. We sit together and talk about things we can share; that seems to be a better and less threatening conversation.” The New York State Conference of Mayors has issued a statement opposing Cuomo’s consolidation mandate and calling for the first increase in municipal aid in nine years.
The strange case of Rosendale
Most current residents of the Town of Rosendale probably never stop to consider the loss of the village that once governed its central hamlet, much less look back and lament. In fact, having recently begun sharing municipal space at the repurposed elementary school on Lucas Avenue, Rosendale might be considered something of a poster child for government streamlining. But the way it went down was nothing short of weird.
In the early 1970s, the town and village of Rosendale were mired in conflict and considerable financial stress. The cement industry that had powered the village economy was but a memory. “Village and town leaders sparred over how to handle noise complaints and snow-plow rights, as water and sewer bills skyrocketed for the village’s dwindling residents,” writes Laura Bliss in a 2016 article for Citylab, entitled “How Raivo Puusemp Saved Rosendale, New York.”
Puusemp is an Estonian-born conceptual artist raised in Utah. According to a bio on Facebook, “In 1969, while involved with an underground art group in New York City, Puusemp developed an interest in group dynamics and social and political processes.” Hearing people fuss about Rosendale, he decided to make an interesting addition to his body of “influence pieces.” He got himself elected mayor, told everyone that they couldn’t afford to be a village anymore and would solve many problems at once if they stopped trying, and put the matter up for a referendum. It passed 2-1, and the Village of Rosendale vanished at midnight of December 31, 1977. The artwork based on this, Dissolution, has been displayed in several countries and was at the Swiss Institute in Tribeca last fall.
In opposing the consolidation mandate, the Conference of Mayors charged that the state is failing to consider just how well many municipalities are already working together. “The last thing municipalities need is another mandate from Albany, particularly one that would circumvent local democracy,” said Executive Director Peter A. Baynes in a press release on February 13. In the pursuit of efficiency, one thing is obvious: One size does not fit all. What the landscape might look like by 2020 is anyone’s guess—but it seems highly unlikely that the end of all village governance is on the immediate horizon.