By JIMMY LAWTON
CANTON – After months of work St. Lawrence County has established a shared services agreement that was ratified by more than 40 representatives.
The plan included participation from the city of Ogdensburg, 20 towns, 8 villages and 10 school districts.
The agreement is part of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo's new initiative aimed at reducing property taxes.
The law requires county officials to develop localized plans to find property tax savings by “coordinating and eliminating duplicative services and propose coordinated services to enhance purchasing power.”
Cuomo says the property tax is the largest tax burden to New Yorkers, with the typical taxpayer paying 2.5 times more in property taxes than in income taxes. But his plan is unlikely to have any real impact on that burden as county officials say most property taxes are raised to offset state mandates.
County Administrator Ruth Doyle said creating such a plan in St. Lawrence County was particularly difficult due to the massive geographic size of the county and the fact that the county, towns, schools and villages already work together to share services where possible.
Under Cuomo’s plan any savings realized through the shared services agreement will be matched with state funds as an incentive to continue to find cost savings.
The task force of more than 40 members considered a variety of cost saving collaborations, but rather than establish a complex plan, the county settled on just two initiatives which officials thought could actually be accomplished.
“You can go into a situation like this and make dramatic changes that would impress a few, but cause frustration for others,” she said. “But, that can drive people away from the table.”
The first would aim to save costs by cooperatively bidding fuel to increase volume in an attempt to get a lower price. Currently the county purchases fuel using its own estimated volume and allows towns to piggyback on that purchase price. But the new plan would take that a step further by using the combined volume for all interested municipalities to get a lower bid.
The second initiative is a bit trickier to implement. The goal revolves around consolidating court services, but not reducing the number of magistrates. Doyle says that calls to reduce the number of magistrates tend to end up in the weeds, with municipalities wanting their own elected representatives.
Rather than tackling that issue, the shared service agreement will explore the possibilities of collaboration between towns that have smaller caseloads.
Doyle says the law allows justices to preside over some hearings in adjacent towns as long as they don’t include dispositions. Disposition includes the sentencing and or final settlement. Doyle says the plan would be to consolidate these eligible cases in towns with lower case loads and allow the judges to rotate the proceedings.
Doyle says this would reduce the hours court would need to be held and reduce travel times for county employees needed at proceedings. This could include sheriff’s deputies, attorneys or clerks.
She said it is unclear at this point how much savings will be found, because the logistics have not been fully vetted or finalized.
For all of its efforts, the participating entities will only save about $17,000 collectively under the plan. That’s largely due to the fact that any shared services previously realized between the county and other entities do not count under the governor’s proposal.
Despite the minor savings, Doyle says the meetings were valuable for all involved. She said getting representatives from the majority of schools, towns and villages at one table opened up many doors that could lead to a variety of projects in the future.
“When the governor announced this initiative he said it costs nothing to have a conversation, which is true,” she said. “I think what we found is that it was worth having these meetings beyond the scope of the shared services plan.”
She said the discussions helped raise awareness of issues, problems and solutions faced and tackled by different communities that could lead to more cooperation between the entities. Because of this success, Doyle says the county will continue to lead the meetings every four to six weeks.
The meetings have triggered new discussions of old projects that have fallen by the wayside as well, such as Ogdensburg’s interest in extending water service to portions of Oswegatchie.
Doyle said she is very impressed with the number of entities that participated in the discussions, including unions officials.
Municipalities that participated included the towns of Brasher, Canton, Colton, DeKalb, DePeyster, Edwards, Fine, Fowler, Hammond, Hopkinton, Louisville, Madrid, Massena, Morristown, Norfolk, Pierrepont, Potsdam, Russell Stockholm and Waddington. Participating villages included Canton, Gouverneur, Heuvelton, Massena, Morristown, Norwood, Potsdam and Rensselaer Falls.
Canton, Edwards-Knox, Gouverneur and Norwood-Norfolk schools also attended the meetings, which included various labor union leaders and several county legislators as well as the officials from the City of Ogdensburg.