Existing laws, political realities and parochial views make shared services – much less a wholesale consolidation between the Town of Mamaroneck and Villages of Larchmont and Mamaroneck – practically impossible. This was the view of William Dentzer, Jr., chair of the Tri-Municipal Shared Services/Consolidation Study Group that issued its report in March. Mr. Dentzer shared his opinions on Tuesday, April 20 at a joint meeting of the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit and League of Women Voters that was focused on ways to ease the property tax burden.
Because of the obstacles, said Mr. Dentzer, the group used feasibility as a key criterion when devising its recommendations, which can be found at www.trimunireport2010.org. Mr. Dentzer provided a candid overview of the structural barriers to change and highlighted some major recommendations from the report. (See also: Tri-Muni Task Force: Mergers, Outsourcing Could Save $1M.)
Unions: Powerful and Well-Protected
Mr. Dentzer noted that the New York State Constitution and existing laws offer strong protection for public union contracts, jobs and job duties – which in turn have tremendous impacts on property taxes. As stated in the report, “approximately two-thirds of the budgets of each municipality are for personnel costs, and over 90% of those costs are determined by the effect of public employee union contracts.”
Mr. Dentzer asserted there has been a successive series of state leaders who, in order to be elected, have pandered to the unions. He noted some observers have declared Albany “a wholly owned subsidiary of public sector unions.”
Proposed mergers or shared services often run afoul of rights given to union members under state law and the state constitution, said Mr. Dentzer. Multi-year contracts compound this problem, and often mergers default to whichever contract’s terms are richer.
Consolidation Requires Majority Support
Another political reality was described by Caroline Silverstone, a former supervisor of the Town of Mamaroneck, who recounted discussions of consolidation from the 70s and 80s. By state law, all voters in each affected municipality may participate in a decision on whether to consolidate. This was a stumbling block in the 1970s to having the Rye Neck portion of Mamaroneck Village leave Rye Town to join Mamaroneck Town. Residents from Port Chester and Rye Brook opposed the move, fearing their Rye Town taxes would rise if the municipality were to lose the valuable properties of Rye Neck.
The current shared services report did not focus on a full consolidation of municipalities. The report states, “We see evidence that neither village wants to be absorbed, fearing loss of control over services, their costs, and its future.”
Paying for Community Identity and Local Control
Parochialism on the part of local governments as well as citizens was discussed as another factor contributing to communities’ reluctance to share services. Ms. Silverstone talked about citizens worrying that a certain “community intimacy” would be lost, although she believes that residents now worry less about personally knowing their police and firefighters than they did in the past.
However, local boards are still hesitant about giving up their right to make decisions for their communities. Even the question of who will be placed in charge of a merged service can be fraught. As expressed by Westchester County Legislator Judy Myers, often what gets in the way of consolidation is the value placed on home rule, which allows each community to decide its own land use, its own services and its own destiny.
Larchmont Village Trustee Marlene Kolbert said people move to a particular community in large part because of the services they get. They expect a lot of services in this area. To see savings, it is inevitable that residents would have to relinquish some services, she noted.
Study Group Recommendations
Mr. Dentzer said his group believed it was important to acknowledge barriers to change and to present concrete recommendations that would not “just sit on a shelf somewhere” because they were unrealistic. Although the seven recommendations in the report may not be sweeping, he asserted, they are steps that could be taken now to achieve progress.
The report’s most important proposal, said Mr. Dentzer, is the formation of a joint detective bureau for the Town of Mamaroneck and Village of Larchmont. The study group believes this would lead to better services as well as savings in costs through a reduction in staff.
The report has several recommendations for the Larchmont and Town of Mamaroneck fire departments, one of which is to build on the deep ethic of mutual aid in order to work more closely and begin to think like one department. There are other suggestions, including consolidating the issuance of parking permits, merging and privatizing the assessment office, and creating a tri-municipal joint recreation committee.
A full discussion of the recommendations is in the report.
Ball Now in the Court of The Municipal Governments
Town Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe outlined next steps, now that the report is public. She said she has already met with Larchmont Mayor Josh Mandell and plans to talk with Mamaroneck Mayor Norman Rosenblum soon. She expects a joint session of the Town of Mamaroneck and Village of Larchmont boards some time in May. She said the municipalities need to take each recommendation and see what can be agreed on quickly. Those ideas that are more difficult to implement, will need further study of their financial implications.
Liz Feld, former mayor of Larchmont, said local governments are going to be limited in their ability to respond to this issue. “So many of our problems come from Albany,” she said. “As the people who pay the highest taxes in the nation, we need to lobby for change.” She suggested, “We have to do a better job of advocating for change at all the other levels of government.”
Mary Lee Berridge and Elaine Chapnick, co-presidents of the Summit, and Nina Recio-Cuddy, co-president of the League, chaired the meeting.
Heidi Sickles is a member of the Local Summit.