Fast track to shared services may leave some in the dust

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider
One of several of the Albany County Department of Public Works's highways garages, the one located in the town of Knox is less than a mile from the town's garage. In efforts to save money by sharing services or facilities, one option may be for the two entities to share one garage.

ALBANY COUNTY — Counties across New York are facing new state requirements to cut costs and streamline services, but it’s the small towns that are wary of the changes.

Local leaders worry that their towns will lose independence and control if some of their departments — like highway garages — are consolidated with Albany County’s larger version.

The mandate to consolidate is an effort by Governor Andrew Cuomo to lower property taxes by cutting local government costs through consolidating municipal services. It was enacted as part of the state’s 2018 budget.

Plans for each of the state’s 57 counties outside of New York City are due by the end of the summer.

Consolidation can bring benefits, said Kevin Bronner, a public service professor at the State University of New York Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. Snowplowing is one example, he said, since it’s done by three different departments on Capital Region roads — municipal highway departments, the county’s Department of Public Works, and the state’s Department of Transportation.

One department could plow all the roads in an area and save money being spent by the others, in turn saving taxpayers money and potentially being more efficient, he said.

This isn’t the first time the county has used shared services to save money, a 2015 government efficiency plan outlines countywide efforts to share services, consolidate departments, and streamline costs since 2012. The plan notes that some shared service initiatives go back as far as the 1960s.

County Executive Daniel McCoy, a Democrat, said in an emailed statement that these past efforts would be included in the new plan in the hopes they could be expanded upon.

Past efforts included both shared services and department consolidations. McCoy explained that in shared services, while resources are shared between municipalities, those municipalities remain independent of one another. Consolidation would mean a department would be fully absorbed into another, to eliminate issues such as duplicated services.

Another option to save money is sharing facilities, which would only entail municipalities operating at the same location.


“It’s definitely not a good idea, and the town residents are going to suffer for it,” said Randy Bashwinger, the town of Berne’s Highway Superintendent.

Bashwinger believes there are too many factors keeping consolidation from working efficiently. Berne’s highway department operates under a different union — the United Public Service Employees Union — than the county — which uses the Civil Service Employees Association — he said, and it uses a different payscale.

The difference between county-maintained roads and town-maintained roads also means the town uses different materials to treat its roads, with stone sand or stone mixed with road salt to prevent erosion on Berne’s 38 dirt roads. Pure salt, used by the county, “eats the dirt away,” said Bashwinger.

“There’s just so many variables that would not work for the town,” he said.

“Do I think it’ll work, I absolutely think it’ll work,” Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier told The Enterprise earlier this month, speaking on shared-services. “I think it’s a great process — it’s good for the taxpayers,” said Crosier, saying he expects it will save money and improve services.

“It’s not about cutting full-time jobs,” he added, saying highway employees and the two different unions for the town and the county departments would be involved.

“Mr. Crosier has been trying to get rid of these guys for years,” said Bashwinger, of his employees. Bashwinger alleges that a merger would be a means of discontinuing the department’s seasonal, four-day, 10-hour work week and getting rid of the superintendent’s elected position.

Bashwinger, a Republican, and Crosier, a Democrat, have had an ongoing dispute over the work week. Last year, Crosier laid off two highway employees in the midst of a debate over it. They were later rehired.

This spring, Bashwinger sent a letter to the town attorney asking for a legal opinion on Crosier’s authority regarding firing his employees, as well as administering a biometric time clock and security cameras at the highway department that Bashwinger said were not needed.

At its April 12 meeting, Berne’s town board unanimously decided to authorize Albany County to direct a study into the effects of consolidating the county’s department of public works and the town’s highway department. The study would determine if consolidation is feasible and if it would save money. It will be conducted by SUNY’s Rockefeller Institute.

The study was recently completed, said Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute and principal investigator for the both the town’s and the county’s studies. The information gathered indicated Berne has more opportunities to share services with neighboring towns, more so than the county, he said, adding that is a common misconception that this plan will involve only town-to-county interactions.

Bronner notes that past studies on shared services never really followed up on what was accomplished, and said it was important to examine the end results. These studies typically use an early-stage pilot period to look at the effects, he said.

“It’s not something we’ve been hired to do,” said Malatras, of studying municipalities during later phases. But he added he would encourage entities like the county to follow up and he said his agency could study the implemented services.


While against a consolidation of departments, Bashwinger said he was open to sharing facilities with the county.

Knox town supervisor, Vasilios Lefkaditis, Democrat agrees; a shared highway garage with the county is one of the options to solve the current town garage’s poor infrastructure.

The garage has little insulation to keep it room temperature in the winter, and its well water — while not harmful — has extremely high amounts of minerals.

However, Lefkaditis said, shared services are not being considered by Knox.

“I’m not interested in our roads taking second fiddle to, you know, county and state roads,” said the supervisor. “Are they going to plow Route 20 faster, or are they going to plow a dirt road in Knox?”

He noted that different materials used is not as much of a concern, believing that could be worked out between the departments.

Consolidation, he said, would not likely save the town money, he said, characterizing it as a political ploy instead. He added he would also only be interested in sharing facilities if further studies proved it saved money for the town.

While discussing the options for the highway garage at the June 13 town board meeting, Councilwoman Amy Pokorny, a Democrat who has announced she’ll run for supervisor against Lefkaditis in the fall, said she had spoken with Knox’s highway superintendent, Gary Salisbury, and other workers at the garage about the possibility of sharing facilities. There would be issues sharing a facility because of the different materials used, she said, as well as the fact Knox’s highway department is not unionized.

“Their operation is quite different,” she said.

She later told The Enterprise that they had looked at a past shared-services study at this meeting, and determined it would be more feasible to share services with other towns than with the county.

Notes compiled by Pokorny from the meeting state that the logistics of county-to-town or town-to-county snow removal does not work well, and that things like payroll and scheduling systems are too different to be shared.

Other shared services are not needed because Knox’s are adequate, according to her notes. However, developing a shared list of surplus equipment to be made available to towns received positive feedback.

Salisbury, who had the backing of five parties when he last ran in 2015, has not responded to calls for comment. It was noted at the meeting he has been away for some time.


“This is a very unexpected thing that was put on the county and has trickled down to the towns,” said Rensselaerville’s supervisor, Valerie Lounsbury, a Republican. She had decided not to attend the meetings between county and municipal leaders and instead had Rensselaerville’s highway superintendent, Randy Bates, a Conservative, attend in her place.

While the county is seeking a formal plan for shared services, towns have been implementing their own version of shared services for years, said Bates.

“It has to be, especially with the summer months,” said Bates, explaining that this is when towns share the most equipment for tasks such as paving roads.

Rensselaerville’s highway department works with the towns of Broome and Conesville in Schoharie County; Durham in Greene County; and Westerlo, Berne, Knox, and New Scotland in Albany County, said Bates.

“It’s quite widespread,” he said.

Both Bashwinger and Lefkaditis said the Berne and Knox highway departments also share employees and machinery with both the county and other towns.

The ability to share equipment cuts costs by thousands of dollars, said Bates.

A merger of the town and county departments, however, would not be as beneficial, according to Bates.

“That’s a totally different issue,” he said. “The towns would lose their independence.”

He said he has yet to see any numbers suggesting there would be money saved by consolidation.

“The thing that’s really important is local control,” he later said.

Bates said Rensselaerville’s highway department also has a different payscale and employee classification than the county, and also has a different union, the Teamsters Union.

The town currently operates with specialized equipment for its specific roads and bridges, and uses seven full-time employees to operate alone on seven different plow routes, he said.

Out of its $1.1 million budget, he said, the highway department has half of that go to its employees. Cutting costs, he said, would likely have to come from losing staff.

“I’d have to see the numbers to know what my position is,” he said.

But Bates said he could not see significant savings being made in the highway department without laying off workers.

However, he said, there could be benefits to county services in other departments.

“We don’t have an engineering department; we don’t have a legal department,” he said. “It’s hard to always be able to comply with every regulation when we’re so small and we don’t have professional staff.”

EMS in Rensselaerville

The town of Rensselaerville is also anticipating the closure of its volunteer ambulance squad, Rensselaerville Volunteer Ambulance, with an end date set for June 30. The Albany County Sheriff’s Emergency Medical Services, already accustomed to taking calls in the Hilltowns, will be stationing employees in the town.

According to Lounsbury, there will be an emergency medical technician and a driver stationed in an ambulance at Helderberg Ambulance’s building in Berne. Helderberg Ambulance currently serves the towns of Berne and Knox.

A paramedic will be stationed in Rensselaerville or in Westerlo with a non-transporting EMS vehicle known as a fly-car. Lounsbury noted these arrangements are not guaranteed.

The three EMS workers will be paid county employees. To cover their salaries, Rensselaerville will be paying $54,500 for advanced life support, which means a paramedic is on board, and $60,000 for basic life support. The town has paid for ALS for the past 10 years, and has budgeted about $20,000 to support the volunteer ambulance service each year.

“They figure that is going to cover the salaries of those people,” said Lounsbury of the BLS charges at the town board’s June 8 meeting. “And then the insurance revenues will cover the maintenance of the vehicle and the other expenses that are incurred.”

The sheriff’s office first began operating its EMS unit in 1995, and is now based out of the former Clarksville Elementary School building in New Scotland. (See related story.) It also stations workers in Delmar and Voorheesville.

“We are the first ones to do it,” said Albany County Sheriff’s EMS Captain Brian Wood, referring to shared services, because of the county working in conjunction with municipal ambulance services. “This is all about shared services.”

Lounsbury said that EMS response time would be about 20 minutes, which would be about the same as expected now, given that volunteers have to go to the ambulance station before driving to the scene of an accident.

Two former Rensselaerville Volunteer Ambulance EMTs have agreed to continue to respond to incidents when available, said Lounsbury.

Rensselaerville’s town board will be conducting a meeting on June 20 to discuss shared-services and the county EMS program.


“There’s a big difference between shared services and consolidation,” said Westerlo’s highway superintendent, Keith Wright, a Democrat.

Like the other Hilltowns, Westerlo helps neighboring towns in exchange for help in return — lending manpower or machinery to towns like Knox, New Scotland, Berne, and Rensselaerville.

“Working together is what we’ve been doing,” said town Supervisor Richard Rapp, a Democrat.

Wright believes consolidation would benefit the county and the state rather than the towns, and that town roads would get last priority in such a situation.

Rapp agreed, characterizing Cuomo’s initiative as a political move to put him closer to running for president.

“He doesn’t have a clue how we run our towns,” said Wright.

Like Bates, Wright has seven employees each assigned to their own plow route; he said any loss of employees by consolidation would hurt rather than help the town.

“I don’t have enough people to send if I have a guy out,” he said.

The highway workers also do other town jobs such as maintaining and mowing the town parks and running the transfer station.

Westerlo’s highway department is non-union, and also uses mixed materials rather than pure salt to treat dirt roads, said Wright.

Rapp, who served as the county’s DPW commissioner, said that the county could assist the town with something administrative such as a shared insurance program. The town currently pays about $200,000 a year for all full-time and retired full-time employees.


“We do a lot of shared services already,” said Guilderland Supervisor Peter Barber, a Democrat.

Guilderland’s highway superintendent, Republican Steven Oliver, agreed, describing a shared-services initiative started about four years ago among the towns of Guilderland, Knox, and New Scotland, and the villages of Altamont and Voorheesville. The town supervisors signed a written agreement that the municipalities would help one another per their request.

The Guilderland highway department is non-union, said Oliver, but is able to assist unionized departments by operating according to their rules. The Guilderland department occasionally works with the county, and provides signs for the county from its on-site shop.

“We’ve pretty much already been doing shared services,” he said.

Oliver doesn’t believe shared services could affect Guilderland’s highway department as badly as other towns given its size — with about 40 dump trucks and other equipment on hand as well as a workforce of 45.

“Obviously, we don’t want to be taken over,” he added.

Barber described the deadline for a county plan as “far too aggressive.” He said consolidation would have to be mindful of town residents and could be difficult given how localized town services are, but said Guilderland could use a county engineer, since the town does not have one.

New Scotland

New Scotland Supervisor Douglas LaGrange, who attended the panel discussion of supervisors, mayors, and the county executive, said that the general consensus was the maximum amount of shared services had already been done.

“We do a tremendous amount of shared services in town-to-town interactions and county interactions,” the Democrat said. “We’re doing a lot...and it’s worth looking into further.”

Shared services are not just between highway departments, but also between the water and sewer departments. New Scotland’s department of public works and the village of Voorheesville’s have shared equipment and manpower when responding to breaks or if one needs equipment to drill wells or repair water mains.

While the highway department’s large portion of the town budget may make it something to be considered, LaGrange suggested looking into something like shared insurance or information technology.

LaGrange was also wary of losing some local control with consolidation, describing how a supervisor or a highway superintendent was far more likely to be accessible to a town resident.

“If you’re a resident, you can come to my office,” he said.

Still, he said he would be open to proposals that save the town money.

“If there is an have to look at it,” he said.

County view

The new state law dictates that each county executive, after forming and consulting with a panel of town leaders, must develop a plan to cut property taxes by sharing services and submit it to the county legislature by Aug. 1.

The legislature can make suggestions for modifying the plan and the county must hold three public hearings before the panel votes on the plan, which must be done by Sept. 15.

If the plan is rejected, the process begins anew next year. If it is accepted, the plan will be administered next year and the county may be eligible for a one-time state grant matching the savings made that year.

McCoy said Albany County is still awaiting results of a study on consolidation throughout the county, also from the Rockefeller Institute. The results are due before the Aug. 1 deadline. He said the county’s goal is to save as much money as possible.

McCoy described the plan as an unfunded mandate on a tight timeline that puts pressure on the county and towns when there has been ongoing consolidation for years, noting the county’s previous consolidation of 9-1-1 dispatching services for Watervliet, Green Island, Cohoes, and later Coeymans.

McCoy said the county would look at shared services or facilities for highway departments and noted the county’s DPW is already planning to take over services for one school district — he wouldn’t say which one.

Towns would be given the option of having their departments consolidated and, he said, he had spoken to both Lefkaditis about sharing a building and to Crosier about consolidation.

Any job cuts, said McCoy, would be administered as an employee retired — the empty positions won’t be filled.

“We don’t want to lay anyone off,” he said.

He added that, when working with the different unions, it would be a matter of making adjustments.

“You work with unions — you work together,” he said.

He later said in an emailed statement that “any and all potential options are on the table,” for shared services.

Still, McCoy cautioned against consolidating to the point that the county would need to go over its tax-levy limit to fund the programs. The cap limits local budgets from increasing the tax levy to the lesser of either 2 percent or the inflation rate.

“You can’t grow so big,” McCoy said.

The Rockefeller Institute

The county requested a study of shared services in early May, said Malatras, which was shortly after the proposed shared-services plan became a state law with the finalization of the state budget.

The institute began work on the study a couple of weeks ago, after the contract was signed, but Malatras said they were anxious to begin in order to finish on time.

“It is a pretty tight time frame,” said Malatras. He expects the study to be completed by the end of July.

The institute, working with the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz, has been looking at past studies, budget data, and has reached out to both town governments and county officials to determine the options the county has to streamline services and save money, said Malatras.

Some of these options include joint-purchasing between municipalities and cooperating together to provide services, which fit the description of what towns have already been doing together, according to various town leaders.

Malatras said that, along with the misconception that there would only be town-to-county interactions implemented, people also wrongly believe shared services will result in job cuts. He gave an example of the New York State Thruway Authority plowing only the thruway, and the New York State Department of Transportation plowing only state highways, and how, if either plowed both types of roads that happened to be interconnected on a plow route, it would be more efficient. It would not necessarily mean one plow driver lost a job.

“What we’re lower cost doesn’t equal less services...or layoffs,” he said.


More Regional News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.