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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.

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