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What can Batavia learn about consolidation from Seneca Falls?

By Philip Anselmo

BATAVIA, N.Y. — Batavia could learn a thing or two from Seneca Falls. The town and village of Seneca Falls have become the centerpiece of a statewide campaign of the Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who claims that merging municipalities saves taxpayers money.

As the city and town of Batavia pull up their sleeves and really get serious about consolidation—we've all seen the flow chart!—it might benefit to step back and take a look at how things are going over in Seneca County. Officials over there seem to be following the exact same process as our own. They even hired the Center for Governmental Research as a consultant to study the potential merger.

And ever since the initial research came out in November, Cuomo has been promoting the potential $978 savings in property taxes per year for Seneca Falls homeowners. But... it turns out, it's not so black and white.

From an article in today's Democrat & Chronicle:

A closer look at the potential savings in abolishing this Seneca County village of about 7,000 people and having the town take over its functions shows far more modest overall savings than suggested by Cuomo — with other taxpayers paying more as village taxes go down. Seneca Falls also has some unique circumstances that mean its potential savings would be hard to duplicate elsewhere.

"In almost every case, these changes involve a tax shift from village to town taxpayers," said Charles Zettek, vice president of the Center for Governmental Research, who studied the Seneca Falls project and came up with the figure Cuomo quotes.

According to Zettek's figures, abolishing the village, while saving village taxpayers an average of $978 a year, would increase the levy on town residents who live outside the village, who now pay almost no town taxes, by $375. The figures are based on property worth $100,000.

In addition, another big chunk of the savings would come from a $495,000 state grant designed to encourage government consolidations — in effect, a shift in costs from village to state taxpayers.

Maybe that's a question we need to put to our own leaders. In the CGR report put together for the Batavia consolidation, we can read that taxpayers stand to reap a savings of 15 percent on their property taxes. Well, to be more specific, the document reads that consolidation would "reduce the combined property tax levy of the City and Town by 15% per year." So what does that mean for town residents? Will city residents get a reduction while town residents see an increase?

What about this quote from Zettek—not too heartening:

"This whole thing is an art form, figuring out who benefits and who doesn't," said Zettek, who said that generally government-merger plans can trim expenses "in the 2.5 percent to 5 percent range."

Well, if it's an art form, why did we hire bureaucrats to do it?

Or what about this statement from the village administrators:

"In terms of savings from shared services, you're really talking about nickels and dimes," said village administrator Connie Sowards, whose job would be abolished if the plan goes through. "The big thing is the cost shift."

I would suggest reading the whole article by Jay Gallagher. It's quite informative. Don't about most folks, but I'm all for the idea of consolidation, but it seems more and more that the devil is in the details, none of which have yet been definitively worked out.

Let's hope the upcoming "plan" can really spell things out for us.

Russ Stresing

It is with great enthusiasm that I add my comment.

Do you own property in Genesee County? Do you rent?

Do you own property in Genesee County? Do you rent?

Feb 23, 2009, 9:13pm Permalink
Philip Anselmo


We rent office space downtown. We advertise all over Batavia. We provide advertising for downtown businesses. And I spend most of my week in Genesee County, talking to Genesee County residents.

And Russ, you know you will always be my sea monkey at heart.

Feb 24, 2009, 7:19am Permalink
Robert Hunt

I keep hearing that the Town & City tax levy will be reduced by 15%. I'm really having a hard time with the math so maybe someone out there can help me out.

The Town currently has a zero tax rate so how is it possible to reduce the tax levy for Town residents by 15%? Sounds more like a shift to some of the tax burden to me.

Feb 24, 2009, 7:42am Permalink
Philip Anselmo

The town and city have launched the <a href="">Consolidation Plan Web site.</a> Looks quite sleek with an image of what look to be little Lego people, half of them blue, half yellow standing on either side of an unfinished bridge made of puzzle pieces. I wonder who thought that up?

Robert: A link on that Web site to a document put out by the CGR on February 2 takes up, among other things, the tax issue. Of course, no clear answer is provided. It does, however, mention the use of a dual tax zone that could prevent any tax shift.

<b>"Clearly, a major question for the community will be: What is the impact of property taxes with a consolidated model? The analysis will need to incorporate a number of variables, including projections of costs and other revenues (developed in Component 3), growth in taxable assessed valuations and the impact of other local tax issues (such as the county sales tax).

"We do know that the dual taxation zone concept used in Rome, Saratoga Springs and Oneida provide the opportunity for parts of cities outside the dense urban area to enjoy a significantly lower tax rate, which is reflective of the lower level of services needed. Something like the dual taxation zone, along with the impact of cost reductions and revenue changes that might come from a consolidation model could be used to reduce local property taxes without causing any tax shifts.

"A related question is what options exist regarding two services in the City that are provided differently than in the Town: fire and police. It is way too early in the study to outline possible options in either area. We do know that there are different service models from around the state that should be evaluated for consideration. However, it is likely that any significant change toward a new model of delivering these services would require a number of years to implement.

"It may be possible to design the initial model based upon creating a police and fire district in the City area. This would minimize any change to current City and Town residents regarding services provided, who provides those services, and who pays for them."</b>

In case you're wondering, the question posed in "Component 3" is "What does it cost?"

Feb 24, 2009, 7:59am Permalink
Wayne Speed

I can see why the city would want to consolidate with the town. What I can't seem to understand is why the town would want to take on all the added expense of sharing the city costs.

Something has to be in it for the town. What is it?

Feb 24, 2009, 10:11am Permalink
Robert Hunt


I've been to the consolidation plan website and being a Town resident I've been following this fairly close. I have read all of the above as well as the article in the D&C by Jay Gallagher. Although the study committee is made up of local people I do believe the CGR has a lot to gain if this goes through. Looking at documents on the site they're making it sound like there will not be any real significant changes. So what benefit will there be?

The City of Batavia has a population of approximately 15,500 and the Town of Batavia approximately 6,000. I’m assuming for any consolidation to be passed there would need to be a majority vote from both City and Town residents. This would have to be a pretty sweet deal for Town residents because any added costs in public services or taxes would be a hard sell for a majority vote.

Here’s one theory.
Lets tell everyone their public services and “tax districts” will stay the same with no additional cost to anyone. November comes, the vote passes and 2 years from now we are the new Batavia with one government and a population of 21,500. A year or so passes and the new government would like make a change to the tax districts or maybe even eliminate one (further consolidate). Realizing there are 6,000 people getting most of the same services as 15,500 and for a lot less, how do you think the vote would go? I’m not sure if that could even be done legally but at some point this will come to a head and the Town residents will pay.

I just hope all residents, City and Town take the time to evaluate everything and read the fine print before they vote because the CGR will be pushing this.

Feb 24, 2009, 1:32pm Permalink

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