Larchmont Gazette’s June 4th editorial entitled “Stop Stalling on Consolidation” asserts that the Village of Larchmont’s Board has been “stalling on a merger of the tax rolls.” That is an interesting choice of words, and one could reasonably wonder how and why the unnamed editorial writer came to adopt this perspective. But more to the point, the assertion misconstrues the reality of the current situation.
In fact, the Village of Larchmont’s Board agreed a year ago to consolidate the tax rolls once the Town of Mamaroneck conducts its promised reassessment of properties within the Town, including the Village. The Town acknowledged the Village’s position at least as early as August 14, 2008, almost a year ago. Without speaking for the Board, and without going into the arcane details of the situation, I would assert that the Village Board has sought to protect, serve and further the interests of its residents by asking that property reassessment precede the tax roll merger. If anything is “stalled,” it is the reassessment. One might reasonably wonder why.
The Larger Consolidation Context
The Larchmont Gazette’s editorial attempts to place consolidation of the Town’s and Village’s tax rolls in the larger “consolidation” context, and I’d like to address that topic. Consolidation of government services or levels of government often is perceived as a means to:
- reduce the cost of existing services
- remove duplicative overhead
- improve the quality and/or delivery of existing services
- professionalize volunteer services
- reduce the overlap of services
However, proponents of consolidation often present “apples and oranges” comparisons. They sometimes make dubious assertions of cost savings, fail to recognize associated costs, and assume certain levels of service reductions. Proponents almost without exception ignore costs such as:
- the cost of additional middle management, caused by a combination of two or more service department heads
- the cost of combining union contracts across different bargaining units with differing job descriptions, wage scales, benefits packages, etc.
- the probability that unions will cherry-pick which parts of each labor agreement they want to use as a basis for negotiating new agreements, potentially negating perceived cost savings
- the costs associated with retrofitting existing space to serve different purposes
- the cost of legal advice related to administrative restructuring, the drafting of new service agreements, etc.
In asserting that costs would be lower after consolidation, advocates often build in assumed reductions in service. This is particularly true of consolidation advocates who want to combine police departments. But I have yet to meet anyone in Larchmont who wants to see police coverage reduced, or who likes the idea of surrendering oversight of the local police to a more distant, sub-regional authority that might have different priorities in allocating more-limited coverage. Nevertheless, while it is clear that advocates of consolidation often ignore associated costs, make dubious assertions of cost savings, advocate service reductions, and – as the State Attorney General has so amply demonstrated recently – employ the issue for political gain, certain types of consolidation could generate clear benefits.
So, how could consolidation benefit our community? What are the governance problems inherent in the current structure of local government? Where are the current shortcomings?
Four areas of concern immediately spring to mind:
- The sliver of the Town of Mamaroneck that lies to the west of the Village of Larchmont, between it and the City of New Rochelle, receives a lower standard of fire, street maintenance and police services than it would if it was part of the Village.
- The business district that centers around the Larchmont train station is managed piecemeal, making it more difficult to provide pedestrian services, parking, traffic management, tunnel maintenance, trash removal and commercial business support than would be the case if the area was under a single local government entity.
- There is essentially no safe pedestrian, runner, dogwalker or bicyclist access for Town or Village residents to the Village’s 60 acre environmental reserve along Weaver Street.
- The space controlled by the Town and the Village around the Hommocks School is not managed on an integrated basis, depriving middle school students of handy access to appropriate outdoor recreation space.
So, what would be the benefits of expanding the Village footprint to incorporate the Town of Mamaroneck area west of Weaver Street and Hommocks Road? The goals of such a realignment would include the provision of:
- better services – particularly quicker response time – to sliver residents
- holistic business district management of traffic, parking, etc.
- safe pedestrian and bicycle access for residents to the 60 acre environmental reserve at the reservoir – a substantial addition to the amount of open space that would be safely accessible to all residents by foot or bike, and a real, incremental benefit particularly to Town residents in the Murray area.
- reconfiguration of the area adjacent to Hommocks School to improve outdoor passive and active recreation opportunities during lunch breaks, etc.
- maintenance of high service standards for all residents.
But, what would become of the rump Town of Mamaroneck east of Weaver Street? What would be the benefits of consolidating that area with the Village of Mamaroneck? These would be questions worth putting to the three unopposed candidates in the upcoming Town election, as well as to Village of Mamaroneck officials. (That’s right, I’m not going to write here about how to consolidate the Weaver Street fire house.)
What would the Town of Mamaroneck become if the bulk of its functions were absorbed by the Village of Larchmont and the Village of Mamaroneck? That brings us full-circle to the assessor’s office. Interestingly, today the Town of Rye does essentially nothing other than run a tax assessment office.
Imagine combining the Town of Rye and the Town of Mamaroneck to create a Sound Shore Town. Sound Shore would provide assessor’s office services for the area from the Connecticut border to the New Rochelle border, take advantage of scale to cut the unit cost of service delivery, and could provide better service than the Town assessor’s office now provides. Creating it would also cut out one local government and could save taxpayers money. At the same time, the Villages of Larchmont and Mamaroneck would continue as vital local communities that provide a sense of place, belonging, identity and pride to our communities.
Preposterous. Perhaps. So, how do we start moving forward?
As President Obama said yesterday in Cairo:
“If we choose to be bound by the past, then we will never move forward… We should choose the right path, not just the easy path… We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning.”
The path forks here. Which way are you headed?
The views expressed here are those of the author, Richard Ward, not of the Village of Larchmont, other Village of Larchmont trustees nor the Village of Larchmont mayor, who have neither pre-screened nor endorsed this commentary.