County leaders in New York were required by the state to present their shared services plans to residents by October 15. The plan is Governor Andrew Cuomo’s initiative to reduce property taxes by requiring counties to work with local governments to find savings by coordinating and eliminating overlapping services. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne checked in with a few county executives in the Hudson Valley on their plans.
Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino says shared services are not new for Westchester.
“Most people saw this as it was, and that was a political maneuver by the governor,” says Astorino. “We’ve been doing shared services for a long time. Since I’ve been here, we’ve done dozens and dozens and dozens of shared services agreements with municipalities and municipalities among themselves have many that they do. So we’ve been saving money for quite a long time.
Astorino, who ran for governor in 2014 and is seen as a likely 2018 candidate, presented a shared services plan October 12 at a fire training center in Valhalla, an example, he said, of one of the county’s most important shared service initiatives, where Westchester’s fire departments conduct emergency training exercises. Meanwhile, Astorino says the plan recently approved by municipal leaders could save taxpayers nearly $6 million over the next few years. He says most of the 12 ways to save money involve information technology initiatives. But Astorino says the real savings are out of county hands.
“So we’re looking and finding pennies under the couch,” Astorino says. “The big dollars are the state mandates that need to be taken away or looked at as well as in the education field, and both of those were not permitted to be looked at.”
New York City, by the way, is excluded from Cuomo’s mandate. Democratic Ulster County Executive Mike Hein says he supports the governor’s mandate for a plan Ulster County has been practicing for some time.
“Property taxes in Ulster County are lower today than they were all the way back in 2010 yet there’s more assets and services than ever before. You can have it both ways if you’re willing to reinvent all of it,” Hein says. “And part of the shared services and why we’ve been so much of a fan of the concept is because done right it can make all the different between an evolving government that serves its citizens and obviously protects its taxpayers in the path.”
Some examples in his county’s plan include the creation of a municipal purchasing consortium and having the Town and Village of New Paltz share a facility to house both municipalities. There also is a plan, says Hein, to unify Ulster County transit.
“We’re looking at being able to bring together bus services,” says Hein. “Now, the county provides bus services for the entire county that’s geographically the size of Rhode Island.”
The plan calls for collaborating on a single bus service, to serve Kingston as well as the county’s rural routes. Meantime, Republican Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro on October 11 delivered a public presentation on his county’s plan, which contains 37 projects that can provide more than $27 million in taxpayer savings in 2018 and 2019. Molinaro, like Hein and Astorino, says his county has been employing shared services for awhile.
“If the state of New York wants to get communities working together, mandating that happen doesn’t build the respect or trust or relationships necessary for success. And they really ought to focus on themselves. I think Albany and the governor need to look internally at state government, why it forces so much of its spending down onto the backs of local property taxpayers, more so than any other state in America,” Molinaro says. “And I think that the state would benefit from looking at how counties like ours have done this, by building relationships, building trust and respecting one another. And that’s how you achieve success, by working together, not by mandating or demanding it.”
The carrot in the state mandate is this: plans that create demonstrable savings across multiple jurisdictions may be eligible for a one-time state funding match of the net savings. Molinaro was asked what he thinks of taxpayers potentially benefitting from this…
“That we wasted thousands of hours to complete a plan that we would have done over a reasonable period of time they benefit?” Molinaro says. “Listen, what I would say is that the plan is beneficial and the effort was beneficial but what the state cannot ignore is its responsibility for the high level of property taxes and, ultimately, when governments work together, that saves money and creates greater efficiencies. This effort damaged the state’s relationship with local governments, and that relationship was already weak to begin with.”
For Dutchess, the plan includes sharing salt and paving material purchasing, motor vehicle repair, website development and maintenance, Drug Task Force efforts, municipal solar farms, and consolidation of law enforcement. The plan also includes a regional project with Dutchess and Ulster Counties partnering to expand their Conflict Defender Swap program into Family Court, with both counties hiring assistant public defenders. Ulster County will provide conflict defense in Dutchess County Family Court for about 150 cases and Dutchess County will provide the same for Ulster County.