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Municipal officials offer innovative solutions at ‘PAYGo NY’ roundtable

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Officials from municipalities and school districts in the north country made contributions to an “idea bank” during a forum Monday at Jefferson Community College, the fifth and last stop of a statewide policy tour called PAYGo NY.

The goal of the initiative is to mine innovative solutions from community leaders across the state to craft legislation that can be replicated statewide to lower the high cost of running local governments, said Ulster County Executive Michael P. Hein, who launched the initiative.

Mr. Hein, also president of the New York State County Executives Association, brainstormed with about a dozen other officials during a lively discussion Monday. They offered him plenty of messages to take to the governor: Eliminate unfunded state mandates that increase operational costs, ease regulations that make it challenging to share services, and do more homework to understand the challenges faced by small municipalities and school districts in rural areas.

Arguably the most important step for counties to solve their challenges, Mr. Hein said, is to establish a group in which leaders from local governments and school districts can collaborate. As an executive hired by Ulster County to streamline services offered by municipalities and school districts, Mr. Hein developed a business plan that decreased the number of school districts, consolidated county-run health services and sold unused county-owned buildings.

The business model employed by Ulster County, which has a population of about 200,000, has been used by six other counties in the state.

“We want to knock out the traditional border between school districts, counties and local municipalities to identify areas we can cooperate,” Mr. Hein said, adding that New York state leads the country with 11,000 taxing jurisdictions. “None of the 49 other states in this country are trying to be like us, so that tells us we need to change.”

Clayton Town Supervisor Justin A. Taylor said that unfunded state mandates have greatly increased the cost of doing business in the town. To combat rising costs, the town has spearheaded several initiatives over the past 15 years to share services with neighboring municipalities. It shares a fuel depot, for example, with the village of Clayton and Thousand Islands Central School District. It also operates a joint zoning board, planning board and justice court with the village, and has established a joint fire district that serves as one taxing entity.

“I think there should be more consideration to consolidate fire and EMS services in the state,” Mr. Taylor said. “Lots of EMS squads in the region are now doing it, and I think fire districts will start to go along too because it’s hard to get enough volunteer firefighters.

“And I have yet to see one cent of revenue in my budget from (state) mandate relief.”

The cost to employ assessors also has been a challenge for north country municipalities to meet, Mr. Taylor said. Some counties in the state have tackled that problem, Mr. Hein responded, by hiring assessors on behalf of towns and villages. That plan turned out to be highly successful in Nassau County, he said, which cut costs through attrition.

One of the main barriers for rural school districts that are seeking to streamline services is the vast distance between schools, said Travis W. Hoover, superintendent of LaFargeville Central School District. The LaFargeville district encompasses 75 square miles, making transporting students to other districts unfeasible. And if school districts in the region decided to share transportation services, they would pay a disproportionate amount according to a state formula that calculates costs.

“Distances are too great to transport our kids to different school districts,” Mr. Hoover said. “There are a lot of roadblocks that make it difficult here, because our needs are different than other districts. To be lumped in with the rest of the districts from outside our area, I think, is the biggest threat we face.”

At Belleville Henderson Central School District, the main obstacle has been sustaining enough students to receive sufficient per-pupil state aid — a challenge facing many north country districts, Superintendent Rick T. Moore said. The district’s K-12 population has dwindled to 525 students.

“Our biggest threat is no kids, even though we’re one of the top agriculture high schools in the country,” he said. “We just finished building a beautiful agriculture complex, but how are we going to use it without the kids?”

PAYGo NY forums also were hosted in the Hudson Valley, Long Island, Western New York and the Finger Lakes. The initiative will conclude this fall with a report to local and state leaders.

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