October 3, 2013 Leith North Dakota (ANN) – he formal public hearing to discuss the dissolution of this tiny fishing village in Oswego County lasted 12 minutes.
The Village Board and consultants from the Rochester-based Center for Governmental Research took a few questions about updating the map of cemetery plots and sprucing up sidewalks before residents become responsible for their maintenance.
Although Altmar, about 145 miles from Albany, could become the first to dissolve under a new law, fewer than a dozen residents of this 407-person village came on the syrupy July evening. The meeting was shrouded less in a sense of history than exasperation.
“I don’t like talking about it. I’m sick of talking about it,” said Bryan Myers, the dissolution vote leader.
“I hope this all goes through. It’s going to help all of us if we do it,” he said. “We all become one, we all pay the same amount of tax.”
His frustration is one shared by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who since 2009 has suggested that stripping away layers of local government in New York — he estimates there are 10,521, including towns, villages and special taxing districts — will be key to keeping rising property taxes in check. He repeated in July that the state needs government consolidation “now more than ever.”
But his administration has so far not made it a central priority: Cuomo is instead relying on a law, which he pushed for, that changed the process for citizens like Myers to dissolve local governments.
It hasn’t borne much fruit. Nine petitions for village dissolution have been brought under the law in the past two years; eight have been voted down. Altmar is the lone exception.
As other heavily governed pockets — including Capital Region villages like Green Island — weigh consolidation or dissolution, Altmar’s experience shows what stands in the way.
First, there are the root causes. Myers, 56, admits what many village residents said: His efforts to dissolve the village are rooted less in a zeal for lower taxes than a longstanding dislike for Mayor Corey Holcomb, who he described as leading a “clique” that controls the village fire department. (Holcomb was on vacation during the July 6 public hearing, and for a month did not return calls.) Myers sees the fire department as the village’s principal function: The Town of Albion takes care of road maintenance, and neither has a police force. The department covers the town, which in turn funds 84.9 percent of its budget.
The village also provides for street lights, which brings up a second issue in the current process: If you strip away one entity, you often have to create one or more replacements. Jeff Haber, executive director of the New York State Association of Towns, said that while Cuomo has derided so-called “special districts” — which have led to abuses on Long Island and elsewhere — they can be “a very useful tool for town government that helps the town by not charging people who don’t receive the service.”
This means Altmar residents would still pay a bit extra for the street lights — 86 cents for every $1,000 of home value, according to the CGR study. And if they desire additional services — say something formal for the cemetery — they could set up districts. A representative of the Tug Hill Commission offered to help them do so.
But that might mean higher property taxes. The CGR study estimates that dissolving the village will save $36,540 per year, most of it in personnel costs, including $5,600 paid to Holcomb and the village trustees. Legal and study fees related to the consolidation, paid by state taxpayers, run $75,000.
Under the Cuomo law, state taxpayers will also send $58,006 in “Community Empowerment Tax Credit” funding when the dissolution is approved. Assuming all the funds go to reduce property taxes, with the separate lighting assessment included, the tax rate in the village will fall from $9.72 to $5.37 per $1,000 of value. Town residents outside the village will see their tax rates fall from $4.99 to $4.51, the CGR study predicts.