Written by Carol Frank Wednesday, 03 June 2009 16:47
Legislation to make it easier to dissolve or consolidate villages and special districts has snowballed through both the New York State Assembly and Senate’s relevant committees and is expected to reach both floors for a vote as soon as this week. Albany’s seasoned spectators are watching with astonishment, given the usual glacial movement there, as this legislation proposed by gubernatorial contender Attorney General Andrew Cuomo rolls by with the support of key legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith.
The only districts exempted in this legislation are school districts, but all others, water, fire, sewage and garbage are included.
What may have been lost in all the uproar is that there is a way to accomplish both dissolution and consolidation now. Currently, if residents want to dissolve or consolidate a local governmental entity, they may petition for a referendum on the matter. In order to trigger such a vote, it is required that 33 percent of the registered voters in the affected area sign a petition to that effect.
Under the proposed law, 10 percent of the registered voters or 5,000 voters (whichever is less) would be required to trigger a referendum. If a local entity has 500 or less registered voters, 20 percent would need to sign a petition in order to trigger a referendum.
A village clerk would be limited to 10 days to verify the signatures on a petition. If there were sufficient verified signatures, a village or special district would have to set a referendum date between 60 and 90 days after the petition was filed.
A simple majority of those voting on a given day would determine either approval or disapproval for consolidation or dissolution. In the case of consolidation of two entities, a simple majority of voters in each entity would be required for passage of the measure.
Under the proposed bill, the only requirement of the people canvassing to get a petition signed is that they are New York State registered voters.
If a majority of voters approve a consolidation or dissolution, the village or special district has six months to develop a consolidation or dissolution plan. Such a plan must include the disposition of assets and liabilities and in the case of consolidation of two villages, must get ordinances and enforcement of local laws in sync with each other. The wording of the bill states that the local entities must make public a “fiscal estimate of the cost of and savings which may be realized from consolidation.”
Public hearings would follow and there would be an opportunity for entities to revise their “plan” after the hearings are completed.
Furthermore, this legislation gives counties great powers to abolish entire units of local governments, including cities, towns, villages and special districts. A countywide petition to dissolve a local government or district would need either 25 percent of the registered voters or 15,000 signatures (whichever is less) to force a referendum.
The bill also foresees the possibility that local governments might be “unwilling or unable” to comply with the law and therefore spells out the steps for a court-ordered mandate. The local entity would have to foot the cost of such proceedings.
Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel voted against the measure in the Assembly’s Local Government Committee. She has consistently questioned the rationale purported in the introduction to the bill, namely that local governments are the culprits behind high property taxes and that wholesale consolidation and dissolution is the magic bullet to end taxing woes.
Senator Craig Johnson voted neither “yea or nay” in the Senate Local Government Committee, but voted to “withhold recommendation.” His office issued the following statement: “Senator Johnson supports efforts to give residents a voice in determining their own future and commends Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for bringing this issue to the forefront. However, he has real concerns about the bill as presented, including the effect that the proposed threshold requirements will have on the local governments that are in the 7th Senate District. Due to this, and other issues, Senator Johnson is currently withholding his support for this measure.”
To say that local officials, firefighters and citizens following the issue are “up in arms” about this fast-moving legislation is an understatement.
The Nassau County Village Officials Association strongly opposes both S5661 and A8501. The 15-member executive board voted unanimously to move vigorously in opposition. In an email that circulated widely, the NCVOA analyzed the unintended consequences of the legislation.
Regarding the petitioning process, “it would appear that the bill allows any registered voter in the State to gather petitions to abolish or consolidate a village. Consequently, any disgruntled vendor who didn’t win a bid, a candidate that lost an election, a person fined in your court or a person who was accused of having an illegal two-family home and doesn’t live in your village in question could mount a campaign to abolish or dissolve a village.”
The email from the executive director, Warren Tackenberg, went on to add, “It is troubling that the proposed legislation provides that the referendum passes by a mere majority of those voting (not a majority of the registered voters in the village.) Simply put, if you have 5,000 voters in your village and only 400 show up for the election and the vote is 201 to 199, your village is finished. How could this happen? A blinding snowstorm, a summer situation when the voters are on vacation or a petitioner suggesting that their taxes will be lower if they dissolve.”
Mr. Tackenberg continues, “The bill makes no provision for the expense of running the referendum election, nor the costs of retaining the consultants necessary to formulate a sensible plan of consolidation or abolition. The village will pay because it is what we call an unfunded mandate.”
The other matter of grave concern was expressed at the Great Neck Village Officials meeting last week. Voters would be expected to vote on consolidation or dissolution without knowing the specifics and the ramifications of such action because the “plan” is only developed after the vote is taken. In other words, a vote would be required before an analysis of whether or not money would actually be saved by consolidation or dissolution could take place.
VOA President Leonard Samansky said, “This is a ploy to get into our pockets…The state is broke and the villages are solvent. We don’t have deficits….all of this is to deflect attention from the upper levels of government that do have deficits.”
(Update: As we go to press, we have learned that the Assembly bill A8501 has passed by a vote of 117 to 26. It is scheduled for a Senate vote today, Thursday, June 4.)