Reducing Uncertainty when Voters Consider Dissolution

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerSeveral proposals to dissolve village boundaries were on the ballot last week. Voters in the villages of Malone (Franklin County) and Chaumont (Jefferson County), both rejected the idea. The Village of Lyons (Wayne County) embraced it, although by a very narrow margin (and absentee ballots, when counted, could change the vote).

Most village dissolution votes fail to gain the support of voters, putting Malone and Chaumont with the majority. Should these voters have chosen to dissolve these villages? Not being a resident of either community, we at CGR don’t have a voice in the decision. In fact, having studied the issue in both, we can make a case on either side. Our role is to lay out the facts to the best of our ability—informing the voters and empowering them to make their own decisions.

At issue in these votes is a possible loss of identity, and some loss of local control—the power to enact laws and to provide village residents with the services they alone vote to support. Village residents remain voters and taxpayers in the surrounding town and will look to their town for a continuation of needed public services. In exchange for giving up some autonomy, residents expect a smaller tax bill.

Having explored dissolution in more than four dozen villages over the past 6 or 7 years, we’ve gained some perspective on a range of relevant issues. For example, one village is concerned that a village dog leash law won’t be replaced by an equivalent town law after dissolution. The town has no such law now. Another village wants to retain zoning and planning powers within the current village limits—it turned Wal-Mart away before, and wants the power to do so again. Yet another (snowy) village plows its sidewalks, and wants sidewalk plowing in the (former) village to continue when the village government is gone.

Police protection provides a unique challenge, particularly in rural communities. Although the Village of Malone has a police department, the Town of Malone does not. And Franklin County is one of two NYS counties that has no sheriff’s road patrol. The sheriff is only responsible for the jail. If the Village of Malone no longer exists to provide police protection, either the Town of Malone must provide such a service townwide or the residents must rely on the NYS Police. (Police protection was not an issue in Chaumont.)

In our experience, two problems emerge as village residents grapple with their future.

First, villagers cannot be certain that their town board will take a particular action when the village is gone. Take sidewalk plowing. A town is empowered to create a special improvement district that includes only the properties of the current village. Such a district can collect fees from property owners and reimburse the town for the cost of plowing sidewalks within the new district. As the village will likely pass along its sidewalk plow—even the employee who does the plowing—to the town’s highway department, the service can continue unchanged. And only the beneficiaries will pay for it—there is no cost shift to residents living in the town, but outside the village. In our experience, town boards are willing to create these special districts if the residents wish that it do so.

Yet the town board need not make any promises. Under current law, it is not obligated to make its intentions known, although some do. After dissolution, the town board is in charge and can provide whatever services the voters (including those who now live in the village) wish to support, whether through a special district or by providing the service townwide. While not easily resolved, it would be desirable for the town to be required to take a position on specific elements of the dissolution plan. Silence should not be an option.

The second challenge is police. Under current state law, towns are NOT empowered to create a special district to provide police services. The potential loss of a dog leash law or sidewalk plowing is of concern to many. But nearly all worry about the loss of police protection. If supporting dissolution means that police protection could be eliminated or significantly reduced, many “yes” votes turn swiftly to “no” votes.

Police services are expensive. If town boards continue to serve village residents by providing the service townwide, the cost will also be shared townwide. The resulting tax increase on town residents living outside the village (the majority of whom have apparently not chosen to support police in the past) is sure to be a matter of discussion at the next town board election. Many dissolution votes focus disproportionately on police. Towns are empowered to provide police services townwide. Should they not also be empowered to provide police protection to a special district created for the purpose?

There are many reasons to support or oppose the dissolution of a village. And it is impossible to eliminate all of the associated uncertainty. Yet the degree of uncertainty can be reduced if affected towns are required to address major elements of a dissolution plan, and are empowered to provide police protection within the boundary of the former village, if they so choose.