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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, June 19, 2008
For Albany County
By David S. Lewis
ALBANY COUNTY The first mapping of Albany County’s shared services and consolidation has found some surprising patterns. Municipalities with fewer funds are far less likely to share services than those with a more stable economic outlook.
The Intergovernmental Studies Program at the University of Albany’s Rockefeller College released a report earlier this spring analyzing cooperative efforts among the municipalities in Albany County (available online at http://albany.edu/igsp/mapping_albany_county_igsp.pdf).
The report, found patterns suggesting that towns and villages, as well as small, adjoining urbanized areas, were more likely to enter into relationships with each other than were rural areas with distant or suburban neighbors. It also found less active collaborators tend to have fewer than 10,000 residents.
The study also found that a leader with an affinity for cooperation is more likely to achieve shared-service agreements.
“They are different, but they are more likely to be different to people who are paying a great deal of attention to them,” said Sydney Cresswell of the differences between consolidation and shared-service agreements. “We made it very clear in our interview protocol, the different thing we were talking about.”
Cresswell is the assistant dean of Rockefeller College and one of the authors of the study.
Cresswell said she hoped the report, which followed on the heels of a statewide survey taken over a period of 10 days in order to provide county legislators with information on inter-municipal agreements, would be part of an ongoing general annual survey analyzing local government efficiency.
“We want to gather information from within municipalities on all the cost-savings methods and methods for increasing revenues,” said Cresswell.
The report, entitled “Municipal Cooperation and Consolidation: Mapping Albany County,” was a project undertaken at the expense of Rockefeller College; Cresswell said the college chose to study Albany County because benefits gleaned from the study should go first to their home county.
“We are a program in a public university; to the degree possible we do everything we can to help. And we don’t charge for it,” she said. “No one funded it, we had to do it on our own time, and we chose Albany because it is our home county. If you are doing something just to make the contribution and to learn something, it is nice to do it in your own backyard.”
Cresswell said she expected to see many more municipalities forming agreements in the near future, and that new boundaries are being crossed in the quest for consolidation.
“I am seeing a lot of cooperative activities occurring across school district and town boundaries,” she said. “I do think the winds of change are bearing down on us.”
The report studies both service sharing and consolidation.
The report found that municipalities experiencing fiscal stress were not as likely to enter into cooperative efforts as wealthier, more financially stable municipalities.
The report included a summary of income and the poverty rate in each municipality. While the city of Albany has a poverty rate of 22 percent, suburban New Scotland and Guilderland’s rate was 4.1 percent and the rural Hilltowns are at 5.3 or 5.4 percent; county wide, the poverty rate is 10.6. Similarly, per capita income in the Hilltowns ranges from $21,000 to $23,000; while in New Scotland and Guilderland, it is close to $30,000.
The village of Altamont’s mayor, James Gaughan, said that, although seemingly incongruent, he had found that his village’s stability had helped him pursue agreements with other communities.
In the Enterprise coverage area, the report listed Altamont with seven shared services, second to Guilderland, with eight.
“There are two factors that make Altamont ideal for inter-municipal agreements,” said Gaughan.
“The first I would attribute to me and the supervisor [of Guilderland, Kenneth Runion,] and our relationship,” he said. “You have to build relationships with your neighboring officials.
“And the other is our financial well-being. We had the luxury of being financially well-off, and that allowed us to explore our options,” said Gaughan.
“If I did not have a cross-supportive and professional relationship with the supervisor of Guilderland, I don’t think it would have been possible,” he said, referring to the village’s land-use agreement with Guilderland, which dictates that development plans for areas near the village would be submitted for approval to the village board. If rejected by the village, the town of Guilderland would need a super-majority vote to overrule Altamont.
Guilderland Supervisor Kenneth Runion said it would make sense for struggling municipalities to take advantage of cost sharing with other communities.
“The reason for these cooperative agreements is to share services and to save money,” he said. “I wouldn’t think that would be a deterrent.”
“What you may find is that, when you have a fiscally unstable government, they probably have a tendency to look inward and to deal with those efforts rather than seeking agreements,” said Runion. “I should think it would be just the opposite.
“A lot of people are under the impression that, when a community is experiencing a period of financial stress, they would be more likely to turn to cooperative agreements, but we found that wasn’t the case,” said Cresswell. “They took whatever measures they could to get things back in line and, then, turned out to be very good cooperators,” she said with a laugh.
Methods of dealing with financial stress included cutting back on services and expenses but none of the three local leaders who had led their communities through tough times turned to cooperatives.
“They may feel threatened in some way by outside cooperative efforts as well. Maybe that’s part of the issue. There are state safeguards that protect municipalities’ independence; I can’t see where that would enter into the situation,” said Runion.
Would entering into cost-sharing agreements and consolidation efforts with other towns likely be enough to bail out a financially unstable town or village? Runion said, he didn’t think so.
“I don’t think you are going to see any kind of cost-sharing measures that are going to help a struggling municipality,” he said. “While we do save money, we are not saving hundreds of thousands of dollars through the various agreements we have.”
Runion said that cooperative efforts were better suited to reducing duplicated services and trimming costs.
“We have so many levels of government: village, town, county, even water and sewer districts, a variety of various special districts. There is a lot of duplication of services,” he said. “I guess the goal should be, how do we eliminate as much duplication as possible?”
And, according to Runion, therein lies the problem. When you consolidate the services that make a community feel independent, he said, many feel threatened.
Runion attributes his success in forging cooperatives to having an “open-door policy” and a transparent government; he has been a village mayor and a supervisor, providing him with critical perspective, he said.
“Having served as both a mayor and a supervisor, I think I am able to spot where it is beneficial to both municipalities to enter into these cooperative-type measures,” said Runion.
Cooperative ventures, the report says, include sharing equipment, paramedic service, fuel, assessing, staff, community development, land-use planning agreements, and sewer and water.
Berne, Knox, and Voorheesville each cooperate in five categories, the report says, New Scotland three, Westerlo in two, and Rensselaerville in only one.
Dolin questions differences in definition
The report states that New Scotland has no formal inter-municipal agreements, but Supervisor Thomas Dolin said that there are agreements with the neighboring town of Bethlehem, from which the town of New Scotland gets its water.
“I’m not sure what their definition of “formal agreement” is, but we have four water districts supplied by the town of Bethlehem, and they own the reservoir located in New Scotland,” he said. “The town sold it 1957.”
New Scotland also has several informal agreements dictating the loans of some kinds of equipment, and the town also signed a contract with the village, which will supply water to the new housing development at the Colonie Country Club.
Attempts were made by the two previous town supervisors, first Martha Pofit and, later, Ed Clark, to enter into agreements regarding assessing services, building and zoning agreements, and animal control, with the village of Voorheesville, but the efforts had failed, said Dolin.
Dolin said he is very open to cooperating with other communities, and that he meets regularly with the Bethlehem supervisor, Jack Cunningham, and Robert Conway, the mayor of Voorheesville.
The Rockefeller College report indicates that two-year posts make it difficult for many elected officials to implement inter-municipal agreements because the typical timeline for such efforts made them politically vulnerable during the most controversial time period of the project. Dolin agreed, and said political time constraints could be a deterrent, but didn’t think voters would support longer terms.
“Every time it is presented to the public, they turn it down,” he said. “I think the people like the idea that they have the ability to make a change if they find it necessary; and I am sympathetic to that,” said Dolin.
“I think where it has a negative influence is when you’re trying to recruit people to run for the office. For example, if someone has a full-time job, which has a certain amount of security to it, why would they abandon that to run for a position of town supervisor, knowing that in two years they could be out of a job?” he asked.
“In my case, I’m retired, so it’s not really a factor,” said Dolin. “I have the luxury of being able to say what’s on my mind.”
Dolin, who has been in office since November, said that several cooperative ventures with other municipalities are on the agenda now.
“Number one, I am trying to resolve the crisis that exists for many of our town residents;” he said. New Scotlanders relying on wells currently have limited quantities and quality of water. “These are existing homeowners; I am not talking about developing water for new developments, I am talking about existing homeowners,” said Dolin. “I think that’s a chronic problem out here, and it doesn’t have a short-term solution.”
Dolin said he plans to work out deals with neighboring communities in order to solve New Scotland’s water shortage.
The New Scotland Town Board also agreed last week to join 12 other municipalities in Albany County in a coalition that will work to solve storm-water problems.
Berne town board member James Hamilton said that he had read the Rockefeller College report and found inaccuracies in the appendix devoted to Berne. The report said the county executive, Mike Breslin, and Berne’s supervisor, Kevin Crosier, had both attempted to persuade the board to merge the town’s highway department with that of the county. According to the report, the measure would have saved residents 2 percent on their property taxes, but the board voted against applying for a grant to support the proposed merger. Not so, said Hamilton.
“That’s one of the big inaccuracies,” he said. There was a mistake on the Department of State’s website, too, according to Hamilton, that indicated the grant money was for a study. The authors of the Rockefeller College study had not interviewed him, and only received one view of the merger, that of Kevin Crosier, Berne’s Supervisor, Hamilton said..
“We thought if we got enough useful information, we could share it, but an unfunded study has to have parameters,” said Cresswell. “If we were trying to do a case study on the Berne highway merger, we would have interviewed board members and residents, as well.”
She said that the point of the study was to illustrate cooperative relationships between communities, and, due to limited resources, could not be a collection of in-depth case studies.
“Some of the information that you share is terribly critical to follow up on,” she said of her department’s study. “That’s a detail that didn’t seem central to the point we were trying to make,” she said, of the Berne merger grant.
“The grant was not to study the merger; it was grant money to support the merger, directly.” Hamilton said the grant money would have been for new trucks and to upgrade the Berne highway department’s facilities.
The Rockefeller College study says that the Berne Town Board “did not think the highway department merger would work” and did not want to apply for a grant to “support the proposed merger.”
The report also says, “The board’s objections included skepticism about the extent to which the proposed savings would materialize, arguments that consolidation was tried preciously and did not work, and a general feeling of distrust of relying on a government that is further removed from the people.”
Hamilton said that he couldn’t vote for the measure because he felt the information provided about the savings was insubstantial and incomplete.
“I thought the information provided was inaccurate and misleading,” said Hamilton. “Actually, it was more of a takeover by the county than a merger.”
Hamilton said that the town would have no say over what happened on its roads if the merger were brokered, and that many locals were dependent upon the speedy removal of snow from the roads.
The Rockefeller College report found that residents often don’t trust other municipal governments, creating another challenge to brokering cooperative agreements.
“That’s actually true,” Hamilton said, but that distrust wasn’t the only problem.
“My biggest problem is that it was rushed, not enough information was provided, and I was skeptical about some of the things it claimed,” he said of the merger proposal. “And no other possibility was looked at.”
“Nearly half of the Albany County leaders we interviewed observed this tendency toward provincialism is a serious hurdle they face in proposing shared service agreements,” says the report. Most often a pejorative for narrow-minded and self-centered, “provincialism” was used directly by three local leaders in Albany County, and implied by many more, according to Cresswell.
“‘Provincial’ means that it is a highly ‘localist’ perspective; we decided to go ahead and use it because the local leaders we interviewed were using it,” said Cresswell when asked about the use of the term.
“That term, provincial, has been used a lot,” Hamilton said. “People automatically assume that’s why we didn’t go with the merger.” He said that was not the primary obstacle for the Berne Town Board.
“If more stakeholders in a scenario are not included in discussions related to it, there is going to be some distrust,” he said, “and I don’t just mean in the project itself, but I mean in the initial planning of the project, too.
“Involving more people in the initial planning, coming up with reasonable data that demonstrates where the cost savings would come from would make more sense; that way, you have governments at the same level working together. People would not feel they are being taken over by a larger entity,” said Hamilton.
He considers himself open to inter-municipal agreements.
“I am the town of Berne’s representative to the county legislature’s Municipal Services Committee,” he said. “In fact, I suggested we join the committee.”
“It’s a meeting between Albany County and every municipality in the county,” he said of the committee. “We discuss possibilities for working together and saving money for members of our communities…Right now, we’re discussing health insurance through the county, because we can get it cheaper that way.”
Like minds think…alike
Like communities with similar geography and demographics are better suited to inter-municipal agreements, said Hamilton.
“Personally,” said Hamilton, “if there is going to be consolidation of municipalities and entities, I would be more comfortable seeing the Helderberg Hilltowns consolidating as one community rather than see us absorbed by a town with a different geography and demographic.”
Cresswell disagreed. She said that, for certain types of agreements, differences between communities are far outweighed by the potential cost-savings.
“…To the extent that some of the cooperative agreements that have bigger dollar values, it really doesn’t matter what the geography and demographics are,” she said. For example, she said, “Most local government budgets are labor intensive, and the health insurance cooperatives become really interesting possibilities, because there is quite a bit of money that can be saved through them.”
The Rockefeller College report found that some circumstances were more favorable to inter-municipal cooperation than others. Through interviewing local leaders, the study identified many elements of successful cooperatives and offered solutions that lessen the potential for failure.
It’s unlikely consolidating entrenched services, such as the proposed merger between the town of Berne and the county’s highway departments, will succeed, the report says. The report found that consolidation efforts were more likely to succeed if they involved services that were new enough not to be entrenched in the public’s mind.
Built-in sunset clauses or expiration dates are another way to “sell” a proposed agreement to the public. According to the report, sunset clauses are especially useful for situations where the public acknowledged a need for change, but shied away from inter-municipal deals, providing an “attractive safeguard.”
Other methods that local administrators found effective were capitalizing on “striking moments,” or ideal timing, as the community’s circumstances change or evolve. Such changes could be fiscal, or the result of new technologies or evidence, or even new participants in the process, according to the study.
She noted that there are municipalities in the county moving in positive directions, and said that one of the objectives of the study was to better learn how to study the best examples of well-run local governments, and to pass on the information to policy makers.
She added that the information learned could be beneficial to other counties, as well; she said she hoped the report would attract the attention, and the contracts, of other counties, which would hire the Intergovernmental Studies Program to conduct similar “mapping” studies for their areas.
We learned a great deal, and more of that should be done, and there is much about the character of different counties that, if studied, could benefit policy makers, not only at the county level, but the state government, as well, said Cresswell.
“When you are doing a survey, you have to make sure that they are asking the right questions,” said Cresswell. “This was very much exploratory, so we tried not to interject too many accolades or praise in there, but we do feel there are several local leaders who are very forward looking and progressive.”