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Dissolution, or just fooling around?

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While the state Legislature acted last year to make dissolution of village governments a whole lot easier, and put much of the power to begin working on dissolution in the hands of village residents, at least two dissolution studies going on now in St. Lawrence County are showing just how much of the devil is in the details.

In Potsdam, it seems pretty clear that public sentiment is moving away from dissolution, although residents there will be able to make their own choice at the polls. In Waddington, what appeared to be a promising start to a dissolution movement came to an abrupt halt when a majority of the Board of Trustees suddenly tabled the entire process — effectively killing any vote on the proposal this year.

Ironically, both these movements originated with village officials. The public did not petition for these studies, although some members of the public from both communities have been vital participants in the process. Yet despite these encouraging facts, it appears likely both villages will remain as separate taxing entities, at least for the near future.

In Potsdam, where there will be a vote and where the results could still surprise, the main stumbling block appears to be police coverage, and the failure of the Town Council to rubber-stamp the study’s conclusions. Potsdam poses a problem for any dissolution effort, because it is larger than most rural villages and is home to not one but two four-year colleges. That makes the village police force considerably more active than the force in, say, Adams, where crime is low and tickets can probably be ordered by the gross rather than by the thousand. An active police force gives the residents a sense of greater security, and a local police force in a college town can offer a much quicker response time than sheriff or state police road patrols.

The question of police coverage is of itself enough to sway a significant number of votes. Another premise of the study — indeed, what appears to be on the way to being a uniform premise of dissolution studies — is that the town will hire all the village’s employees. Waddington’s study presumes the same end result. And it is here that all studies begin to fall apart.

Where, exactly, is it written that public-sector jobs are sacrosanct? Not in St. Lawrence County, where county budget officials are lopping almost 100 jobs from the county payroll. Not in any school district in the north country, where upwards of 500 teaching jobs have been excised in the past year. And not in the state of New York, where thousands of jobs have been eliminated and state employees have agreed to unpaid furloughs days to cut state spending.

And yet — village dissolution studies almost unanimously propose that all village jobs will be absorbed by the town. This, when many towns have not recently conducted studies to see if their payrolls are bloated by too many employees.

The Potsdam Town Council is absolutely correct in refusing to enter into any memorandum of understanding about taking over village departments, and thus employees. First, no town board should cavalierly encumber future boards. More importantly, however, no town board should promise to hire people, and create positions, that it cannot say for sure will be necessary. This is true in towns like Potsdam, and it is equally true in towns like Waddington. This part of the Potsdam study is a major reason that taxes would rise to the predicted level in the town outside of the current village.

The fact is, losing the presumption of guaranteed employment in dissolution studies will make every dissolution study more attractive. It will lower the impact of the dissolution on the town tax rate, and that will have a positive effect on all taxpayers; it will make the new rate the former village taxpayers face even lower, and it will make the new town rate not go up as much. The taxpayers win when payrolls are a legitimate and objective part of these studies.

I have read the tortured logic in the Potsdam study that supports keeping full village employment at the town level. Village administration is supported, for example, when there is no village to administer. Likewise, the transfer of public works employees to the town Highway Department is assured. Right now, the town Highway Department is smaller than the DPW. It appears likely the town highway chief might like to try to take over the necessary village duties without more than doubling his staff. And he might want to drop some village services entirely as being excessive.

As long as dissolution studies have the effect of being Full Employment Acts rather than efforts to trim government and make it more efficient, the numbers are never going to add up and only the most disgruntled — or overtaxed — village residents are going to force any changes at the voting booth. And in Waddington, even that slender opportunity has been taken away. It makes you wonder: will the people ever decide to take the power away from the officials who are so jealously guarding it?

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