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Speaker at JCC local government conference calls consolidation painful, but sometimes needed

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For leaders of village and town governments, the prospect of consolidating is akin to a trip to the dentist, municipal consultant Peter M. Fairweather said during a presentation Thursday at Jefferson Community College.

“It’s about as enjoyable as getting a root canal. And there are perfectly good reasons to get a root canal, but you should be clear about what those are,” Mr. Fairweather, president of Fairweather Consulting of New Paltz, said during a presentation on shared and consolidated services at the 2014 Local Government Conference hosted by the state Tug Hill Commission.

Mr. Fairweather told the audience at the daylong conference that to be successful, municipalities seeking to consolidate and share services must have the following five qualities: clear goals, realistic expectations, good working relationships, sustained leadership and patience.

When he asked how many people in the audience were mulling whether to consolidate governments, about five hands rose in the audience of about 70 people.

Those results reinforced Mr. Fairweather’s point that sharing and consolidating services aren’t popular topics among municipal leaders. The processes almost always involve painful choices, and legitimate cost savings are usually made possible only by personnel cuts that are hard to swallow, he said.

“In a lot of communities, when you look at what makes the budget as big as it is, it’s usually the personnel side. So if you’re looking to save money, that means you’re probably going to have to cut personnel,” Mr. Fairweather said. “And if you’re in small communities, that may mean somebody you know might eventually lose their job. There are few, if any, painless answers.”

Other difficult choices addressed by municipal leaders during a consolidation study might include a village board consenting to be swallowed up by a larger town board, or a village police department being taken over by a town department or county sheriff’s department, he said.

Joint committees with village and town leaders that are exploring consolidation must have dedicated members who are willing to commit themselves to what is often a long, arduous process that may take years to achieve results, Mr. Fairweather said.

Establishing a small committee, with perhaps three to eight members, that is committed to reaching a successful outcome is critical, he said. Often a consolidation study might take one year for a consulting firm to finish, but it could take additional years of planning for a joint committee to agree on a successful outcome.

“There needs to be a core group in the community that can bring people to the table and don’t mind getting screamed at a little bit, because it’s a highly emotional situation,” Mr. Fairweather said. “You need to build community support for any recommendations that come out of the process.”

Dean A. Erck, a member of the village of Alexandria Bay Planning Board, asked Mr. Fairweather whether dissolution could be a negative move for villages that have a lot of debt.

“If your village has a lot of debt that it took on for water improvement projects and they dissolve, the way I understand it would be that all of the debt load that I have as a resident can’t be given to the town,” Mr. Erck said. “I have to keep it as a resident of the village to pay for that water improvement plan. So basically, I’m giving away the revenue stream but keeping all the bills. Is that correct?”

Mr. Fairweather said that in such a case, a dissolution plan likely would call for the creation of a special taxing district in which former village residents would continue to pay the debt for former village services.

“But [the town] would enjoy the revenue stream from those services, and we would still pay that debt load, correct?” Mr. Erck asked.

“That is correct,” Mr. Fairweather said. “But the other thing, don’t forget, is that ‘they’ is ‘us,’ too,” if the village dissolves.

In February, the village and town of Alexandria hosted a long-planned “shared services” workshop in which board members discussed ways to streamline local governments. Constraints on municipal finances have added a sense of urgency to discussions between the parties, which are ongoing.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the village of Alexandria Bay had a population of 1,078. The townwide population, which includes village residents, was 4,061.

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