Written by Carol Frank Friday, 13 November 2009 00:00
The sponsors call it the “Empowerment Act” for short, but local governments are calling it the “Disenfranchisement Act” because the sweeping legislation passed this June, going into effect in March 2010, requires voters to vote to dissolve or consolidate local government before they know whether such actions would save money, or not.
“There’s a lot of confusion about the Act and it’s up to you to educate your residents so they’ll know that signing a petition for dissolution sets into motion a complicated, expensive process where the cart is before the horse,” said Wade Beltramo, special counsel for the New York State Conference of Mayors (NYCOM) to a roomful of mayors and village officials from Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties at a NYCOM meeting held at Mineola High School on Oct. 29.
Beltramo spent the evening giving a quick course in the new Act, which is summarized below.
New York State has experience with village dissolutions. Under the old law and since 1972, 19 villages across the state have dissolved. When a village is dissolved, residents still need garbage picked up, roads plowed and maintained, police protection, fires fought, sewage whisked away, building codes enforced and zoning laws upheld. Beltramo said that ironically what happens next is that special districts, usually under town oversight, are created to provide those services. For every one village dissolution, three to eight special districts are formed.
Residents of villages pay townwide taxes, even if they receive few services directly from the town. Because village governments provide many services, village residents are in essence subsidizing town government. Often, when a village dissolves, and the town has to pick up the costs of those services, town residents’ taxes go up.
Actually, according to Beltramo, while the Act was pushed through as a property tax saving measure, it only applies to 12 percent of the property tax pie. He said, “It’s not manna from heaven.”
Under the new Act, if 10 percent of the “electors” sign a petition calling for a dissolution referendum, the village clerk has 10 days to determine the validity of the signatures. However, the collection of signatures has no time limit and those circulating the petition may or may not be residents. For small villages with 500 or less electors, 20 percent of the signatures would be required. A village with 500 electors would require 100 signatures, whereas, a village with 600 electors would require 60 signatures.
After petitions are filed, a village board would then be required to enact a resolution calling for a referendum. A vote would be held between 60 and 90 days past the date of the resolution. If the vote fails, dissolution cannot be brought back to voters for another four years. If the vote passes, the village has to develop a plan for dissolution within 180 days.
This involves establishing a study committee and hiring a planning consulting firm. Beltramo spelled out the following scenario. “Let’s say the village board, after conducting the study concludes that significant savings would not be realized with dissolution and recommends against it. Then what happens?” He said that the plan would go into effect anyway, unless 25 percent of the electors’ petition against the plan within 45 days after the final plan has been accepted. He said, “This is a huge hurdle…and becomes dissolution by default…It’s relatively easy to start the process, but more difficult to turn it around.”
NYCOM is calling for the following amendments to the law before it goes into effect in March.
1. Raise signature threshold for dissolutions to 25 percent. (The old law required 33 percent.)
2. Clarify petition signature process.
3. Do not have a vote without first conducting a study.
4. Lengthen time frames for conducting study.
5. Allow the democratically elected board to approve or disapprove dissolution after receiving study.
a. Approval of dissolution subject to a mandatory referendum.
b. Disapproval of dissolution subject to a permissive referendum.
6. Require vote to be held at normally scheduled election.
When the consolidation plan was first proposed last summer, it was opposed by Village of Roslyn Mayor John Durkin. In response to the amendments idea, Durkin reiterated his opposition.
“While all of us as taxpayers are upset about the high tax levies which are assessed against us at all levels, the Consolidation Program championed by the attorney general does not solve the tax problem and may actually worsen the situation,” the mayor told The Roslyn News.
“Our highest taxes by far are the school taxes,” the mayor continued. “But for some odd reason, the Cuomo plan excludes school districts from consolidation. It also excludes towns.
“I can speak on behalf of villages,” the mayor added. “The village form of government is the most responsive to the needs and concerns of residents. It is the easiest form of government with which to communicate. It provides the best forum for spending overnight. Getting rid of villages, which seems to be a goal of the consolidation plan, is a bad idea.
“Some of the state legislators who voted for the consolidation law had no idea what they were doing,” the mayor claimed. “They had no idea that there already exists a mechanism for the dissolution of villages, something which was utilized in an upstate community just this past week. The new law provides for a speedy vote on dissolution even before a study is performed to see whether or not dissolution would actually save money. Making a decision without knowledge cannot be a good thing under any circumstances. Passing a law which promotes uninformed decisions cannot be a good thing, either.”