Medina Journal-Register — Over the past year, officials in Ridgeway, Shelby and Medina held several meetings concerning shared or consolidated services among the three municipalities. The meetings have essentially stopped, but in the Village of Medina a committee was formed in the latter half of last year to look at creating a dissolution plan.
While that plan is still incomplete, and therefore not available, the discussion among citizens about whether dissolving the village is a positive or negative step is ongoing. Ultimately, village residents may wind up voting on the issue, but that is not yet a given.
In one community of comparable size, dissolution occurred two years ago.
Seneca Falls, located between Rochester and Syracuse, was dealing with a number of the same concerns frequently talked about locally. It also had both the Town Board of Seneca Falls and the Village Board of Seneca Falls. Different from Medina’s case, it is unique in that its population is almost evenly split between two towns.
As of Jan. 1, 2012, only the town exists. Town Supervisor Don Earle has answered many questions on the dissolution topic. He said oftentimes people will ask what could have been done differently and whether, if given the chance, it would be done again at all.
“I tell people that we would absolutely do this again,” Earle said. “And the only thing I wish we would have done differently is that I wish we’d done it sooner.”
Earle took office as supervisor on the day the village ceased to exist, but he was active and involved beforehand. He recalled how some of the discussions between the Seneca Falls village and town leadership were essentially power struggles.
“Neither leader wanted to give up power or authority or governance, and that’s why our efforts to share services fell apart,” Earle said. The village leadership began its dissolution discussion once those efforts failed, Earle said, and he said at that point a “line was drawn.”
Fear seemed to be the common thread among Seneca Falls citizens, he said.
“People were scared,” Earle said. “They wanted to know how it would work. Would it save money? Would services be lost? Would money be lost? Would history be lost? These fears are common to any village contemplating dissolution.”
Earle said the village hired the consulting firm CGR (the Center for Governmental Research) to create a dissolution plan while outspoken residents for and against the idea campaigned back and forth. When the vote was held the margin was narrow but favored dissolution.
“No one really knew what to expect,” Earle said of the vote outcome. He said many people were still “expressing fears about losing their heritage and their history” as the final days of the village ticked down.
“It reminded me a bit of people’s fears regarding Y2K,” Earle joked. “What happened, of course, was nothing. No services were interrupted.”
Earle said there were inevitable issues to overcome, but they were far outweighed by the positives.
“One of the biggest advantages promised as a result of dissolution was a sizable tax reduction for village residents,” he said. Former village residents paid a base tax rate of just under $17 per $1,000 of assessed value in Seneca Falls. Once the dissolution took effect, that base rate dropped to just under $6/$1,000.
The obvious question, “What about the town taxpayers?” was answered, too, with an increase.
“The town residents were hardly paying any taxes and had the benefit of landfill revenue,” Earle said. “Their rate went from extremely low to the same as the former village.”
Earle recalled some people from the town entering the municipality’s office during tax season and many expressed some shock.
“They were expecting taxes to be higher, but they said they could live with the increase because it wasn’t too bad,” Earle said.
Any outstanding debt in different parts of the town was paid for by the residents in what Earle described as “debt districts.” Both the town and the village had debt to pay off. In the old village boundaries Earle said the tax rate was affected by a few cents, while in the town the same thing applied.
Public services like the fire and police departments were affected, albeit in different ways.
“We created a fire district for the town,” Earle explained. “It’s governed by fire commissioners.” That commission is an elected local body, not entirely unlike how the Medina Village Board handles the Medina Fire Department now.
Earle said the Seneca Falls Police Department’s options regarding dissolution were three-fold: 1) Create a special police district with a citizens board of commissioners, which would require special state legislation; 2) Create a town-wide police force; 3) Abolish the department and let the Sheriff’s Department handle local law enforcement.
The Seneca Falls government went with option two, and town residents have noticed a difference in the past two years.
“Folks in the former town outside the village felt they were getting fine coverage with the Sheriff’s Department, but they really weren’t,” Earle stated. He noted that many favored option three since a portion of the county tax bill helps fund the Sheriff’s Department. Some voiced concerns over the cost of maintaining the local police department, but in the grand scheme of things the difference between options two and three saved money and led to a “minimal cost on the tax bill,” Earle noted.
The union contracts with the Seneca Falls Police Department were voided, Earle said, and were brought in line with rest of the town employees. While the pay cut was not something the law enforcement agency liked, Earle said it was better than the alternative.
“Abolishing the department was a serious threat,” Earle said. In creating the town-wide force, since the former village force was unionized, Earle said the town board “immediately recognized the police union.” Since dissolution a “very active public safety committee has been working with and listening to the department’s needs, addressing them as it can,” Earle said. “That’s gone a long way toward increasing morale.”
Other services in Seneca Falls also continued with few differences, Earle said, the biggest being that they were all under the same umbrella.
“We took on extra services when the village dissolved,” he said. Infrastructure services provided by the highway department and public works department and water department were all affected in some way, but they all were maintained.
One thing Earle pointed out was that in the dissolution very few jobs were eliminated.
“We took on the majority of the village’s former employees,” he said. “The ones that didn’t come over were those who chose to retire or those who didn’t have a position.”
Some of the ones who lost their jobs included the former mayor and village administration. Earle noted a handful of others who also lost their jobs have toured the state since the village dissolved to talk negatively to various municipalities about the negative side of dissolution.
As for the employees kept on, Earle said they kept their pensions and saw their seniority honored in the new arrangement.
Overall, Earle said the past two years have proven the fears expressed by the people of Seneca Falls to be invalid.
“There were unknowns we’ve had to deal with, but we’ve dealt with them,” Earle said.
Today, Seneca Falls is used as an example for similarly-sized towns and villages who seriously consider dissolution. And Earle said that is part of another fear put to rest.
“People were concerned they’d lose history if they dissolved the village,” he explained. “But if you come to Seneca Falls, you don’t say, ‘I’m going to the town of’ or ‘I’m going to the village of,’ you say ‘I’m going to Seneca Falls.’”
To date, the Central New York town is the largest to dissolve the village within its boundaries. Earle said it works, but it is definitely “an undertaking and may not be the best thing for everyone who looks at it as an option.”
And that is what the elected officials and, ultimately, the voters of Medina must figure out.