Even before being subject to one of the most serious financial crises in recent history, local governments throughout New York had been experiencing a steady decline in revenue and a steady increase in operating expenses. Now, local governments are struggling with how to maintain essential services without increasing the property tax burden on already beleaguered home and business owners.
To those who study governments, it became apparent that the multiple layers of government and taxing jurisdictions, particularly in New York State, were producing many overlapping and duplicative services, resulting in huge inefficiencies and millions of dollars of unnecessary expense to taxpayers. In an attempt to address this, New York State set up a Local Government Efficiency grant program. Under this program Ulster County recently applied for and was awarded a grant to study shared services opportunities, and contracted with Pattern for Progress, a Hudson Valley based non-profit public policy research and planning institute, to conduct in-depth interviews with fourteen municipalities, including Gardiner, and to look at multiple operational areas, including highway services.
The report found that substantial savings could be realized if the County was able to reach an agreement with local highway departments and actually pay them to plow and maintain County roads located within their jurisdictions. The report noted that over 30 New York counties were already actively engaged in such agreements, and it looked at several of those that were similar in size and geography to Ulster County. The report also noted that the Town of Hardenburgh, in Ulster County, had been operating successfully under contract with Ulster County for a number of years, and was generally pleased with the results.
After reviewing the report Ulster County Executive Mike Hein invited representatives from the Ulster County Association of Supervisors and Mayors, the Ulster County Association of Transportation Superintendents, the Ulster County Highway and Planning Departments, labor unions and other interested parties to form a committee to review and discuss the study and develop a strategy for implementing findings. The committee has completed an exhaustive review of other regions, addressed questions and concerns brought forward by committee representatives, and has developed a draft agreement and proposed compensation rates. Parallel to this, a team from Ulster County has been meeting with officials from individual towns.
Ulster County is now looking for a verbal commitment of intent from interested towns by mid-May of this year, with a signed agreement by the end of August, prior to the adoption of Town and County budgets. In order to give towns the opportunity to evaluate the program, along with results and savings, first year agreements will be limited to one year. Subsequent agreements will cover a three to five year period to allow for long-range planning.
In asking towns to seriously consider the County’s proposal County Executive Hein noted that the larger fiscal picture for both towns and the County is extremely challenging and that, in addition to local financial pressures, town and county budgets are also subject to the looming State budget deficits, which are certain to have a significant impact on taxpayers. Throughout the shared services discussion County Executive Hein has urged town officials to keep an open mind, evaluate the potential savings, and make an informed decision. The County Executive has been adamant about making sure that the proposal offers a win-win scenario for all parties; lower costs for the County, and increased revenues for the towns.