by Dan McClelland
Town leaders said Friday they are amenable to a joint meeting with their village counterparts to discuss ways local government operations here could be more efficient.
In recent weeks Trustee Ron LaScala has pushed town officials, first at their December meeting and later at the village board's own monthly meeting a week later, to begin a study of ways to consolidate the two local governments and their operations.
The trustee right now favors a consolidation method where the village would expand to the same size as the town.
Following LaScala's presentation to his peers on December 19 Deputy Mayor Leon LeBlanc suggested the town and village boards meet early in the new year. Board members agreed and Mayor Paul Maroun said he would set up the joint meeting.
At the end of the town's lunch-time meeting Friday Councilman John Quinn raised the joint meeting suggestion with his colleagues, saying he was open to it.
“Maybe we should also be thinking of other things of mutual interest to discuss with them at the same time?” he suggested.
“We don't meet with them often, so it would be a good opportunity.”
Supervisor Patricia Littlefield thought the last time the two boards met in full session was about five years ago when the boards convened in the Wild Center's conference room to discuss the pending promotional contracts with ROOST (Regional Office Of Sustained Tourism).
“We talked about doing it more frequently, but it never came to pass!”
Mr. Quinn suggested that a representative of the Development Authority of the North Country (DANC) be invited to the meeting. DANC, which just completed the town's sewer and water district consolidation project, would be a likely candidate to do any village-town consolidation study.
The supervisor said she will also ask the state department of state, which has advanced various scenarios for municipalities to combine in recent years, to send a representative to any joint meeting of the local boards.
“That way we hear: 'not what I think I know,' but how it works!”
She said one of her fundamental questions in any discussion of a consolidation study is “who pursues it?”
Littlefield stressed: “I'm 100% behind a study. But we need to know who is supposed to do that study.”
“If the village wants to expand its boundary to the town...is that their study?”
“We're not shrinking. They want to expand!” she continued.
“I don't know that it's just not their business,” she confided to her board members.
“No one should go into a study saying 'we want co-terminus (governments)...or we want dissolution or we want consolidation.”
She said any study should determine the various options open to the community and what happens if one option is selected over another.
One answer that must come is who should be the sponsor of any study or can it be a joint-study, she mused.
“If the proposal is to expand the boundaries of the village to the town's, do we even have a right to be part of that?”
Quinn said Carrie Tuttle of DANC has forwarded information about consolidation options to the town for the perusal of the board members.
On the Article 17 option advanced by LaScala, Quinn said “ultimately if we were headed that way the town board would have to vote to approve and the voters in the area to be annexed into the village would have to approve.”
If a decision was reached to dissolve the village, that would be decided by the village board and village residents, not the town board and town residents, who would have no say.
The supervisor said if the study resolved that the best option would be co-terminus, maybe the best order would be consolidation or dissolution (of the village) or to do nothing.” She said there have been many studies on consolidation of governments around the state where it was recommended that nothing be done.
Councilman Mike Dechene reminded the board of the earlier study directed by Marvin Madore, where it was found basically that there would be little or no cost savings to taxpayers by dissolving the village.
The supervisor continued: “From what I gather the finished study doesn't recommend one direction. It will say: 'here are all your choices'. -And one choice could be: 'don't do anything'!”
She said she didn't think any study should be for the purpose of reducing to one form of government. The aim is to make things more efficient for the taxpayer. “These are all called 'efficiency studies'.”
“If consolidation (of governments into one) makes is more efficient, then so be it, but it may not!”
She said one option would be for the local governments to continue to work together, “and we already do a lot of that.”
Littlefield then proposed doing a study to see what is found.
John Quinn proposed a motion “that the town board is not opposed to participating in a study of what level of consolidation might be pursued.” Dechene backed his move, saying “since we've all been together we've always felt that way!”
Littlefield said it was clear no one can predict the outcome of any new study and what its recommendations will be.
“We can't sit in this room today and say we think it would be best if we did this or did that!”
A study would bring together all the pertinent facts, the ramifications of this move or that one, she stressed.
Free Press Publisher Dan McClelland said in the earlier study directed by Marvin Madore, there was no impartial person or organization to direct it.
Kirk Gagnier, town attorney, said “you need an objective arbiter in the middle to look at what cost savings there are and what decisions are hard in that way and the boards may want to look at some of those recommendations and say 'we don't want to do this, or do that, because it may create this hardship for people'.”
He said a key element in looking at making local governments more efficient is what that does to the jobs of individuals who work for the town and village.
“Having a committee do it, there's too much predisposition, given all the history and everything else, so you need some objective party” to oversee any process, he recommended.
Supervisor Littlefield noted that any consolidation of the two governments would involve an incredible amount of “legal preparation” and research done in preparation for the future operations of the various town and village departments.
“As lay people we cannot presume to know all the answers” to the many questions that will come up, she asserted.
Gagnier suggested the best way to proceed right now is for the both boards to commission the study and agree to split its costs.
Any consultant would come back to the board with an objective finding, he said. Ultimately the boards and the voters would decide, but it is critical that the information they will use to make their choice is objective. “That way you won't run into some dead end because some one is worried about what the answer might be!”
Littlefield said she wants to initially determine from the state department who should sponsor any upcoming study. She said there is grant money to initiate the study, more if a vote is held and the balance of costs coming if any consolidation occurs. “So in the end a study may cost nothing” to the sponsoring body. However, in the meantime, someone has to front the cost of the study and wait for reimbursement from the state, she added.
She proposed a department of state representative be at the discussion table when the two boards meet “to get the real answers.”
Gagnier suggested any state agency representative invited to that upcoming meeting be briefed in advance on some of the facts and details which are unique to this community.
One important detail in any discussion of combining town and village governments would be the effect, if any, on the village's municipal electric system, it was noted in that afternoon's discussion.
Patti Littlefield called the future of our relatively low-priced electric system “the biggest question” in any upcoming consolidation talks.
“Let's get the ball rolling, however” she said of the upcoming talks between the two boards.