Eschewing the ideal for the feasible, a tri-municipal task force looking into shared services for almost a year, unveiled seven major recommendations this week. The group says the initiatives could improve services and save the Town of Mamaroneck and Village of Larchmont as much as $1 million. Suggestions range from the mundane (use the same radio pagers) to the ambitious (a possible merger of fire departments).
The 28-page report from the Tri-Municipal Shared Services/Consolidation Study Group proposes major changes to the police department (a joint Town-Larchmont Village detective unit), fire department and assessor’s office (tri-municipal consolidation and possible privatization). There are more modest proposals for parking (consolidation of Town-Larchmont parking permitting) recreation (tri-municipal committee and shared offerings); and technology (a joint committee).
There are also five recommendations for cutting costs, including: not filling staff vacancies; increasing employee contributions for medical coverage; negotiating union contracts with greater flexibility on staffing; sharing specialized staff and equipment across municipalities; and coordinating work plans (on road paving, for example).
In addition to a chairman, the task force had a board member and resident from each municipality.
Unions and Local Control Are Hurdles
Upfront, the report concedes that an ideal government for a community of 36,000 residents living in 9 square miles “clearly would not be three governments nor as many municipal employees.” However, the group declines to recommend – or even study – a “wholesale merger,” largely because of difficulties presented by “nearly a dozen of these problematic multi-year contracts” with public employee unions.
Elsewhere, the report also cites the unions as obstacles to efficient staffing and other reforms at the local or state level. “While it may seem a pungent overstatement, some say that in matters important to them, Albany is a wholly owned subsidiary of public sector unions.”
Asked if it were accurate to characterize the report as “anti-union,” task force chairman William Dentzer, said, “That’s fair.”
“It comes from the reality of New York State laws,” he said. “As a Democrat not running for public office, I can say that. We want the public to understand the power of public sector unions in Albany as the source of the problem.”
The task force also bows to the political realities inherent in any merged or combined function – the three political boards would have to agree to give up some measure of independent control. The group finesses this issue, in a number of instances, by recommending tri-municipal governing boards, similar to the Joint Sanitation Commission now overseeing garbage collection in the Town of Mamaroneck and Village of Larchmont.
However, getting the governments to give way will still be difficult, as became apparent at the Town of Mamaroneck’s work session on Wednesday, March 17. Board members had concerns with many of the recommendations, and Town Councilwoman Phyllis Wittner took particular umbrage at the report’s specific proposals over which individuals should lead a combined detective unit (Larchmont Police Chief John Poleway) or potentially merged fire department (TMFD Chief Sean McCarthy, a volunteer). Nevertheless, Ms. WIttner told the Gazette “We will take a hard look at the recommendations and see what can be implemented.” Of course, she observed, the other boards will also be taking a hard look.
Despite the various real and serious roadblocks to change, the report nevertheless presents a number of ideas which the task force believes stand a chance of surviving both union and political challenges.
TOM-VOL: Joint Detective Task Force
In proposing a bi-municipal detective unit, the group skirted the emotionally charged all-out merger of the Mamaroneck Town and Larchmont Village police departments. It also leaves out Mamaroneck Village, because of that department’s coverage of parts of Rye Town.
As suggested, patrol officers – responsible for “day-to-day duties of policing” – would remain tied to their respective departments. Detectives, however, would move to a stand-alone investigative unit under Larchmont Police Chief John Poleway – described in the report as “an innovative leader with an advanced degree in management.”
Ultimately – after further study, retirements and renegotiation of contracts – the new unit would probably be able to operate with two fewer detectives, for a savings of $300,000 to $450,000.
TOM-VOL: Begin to Think Like One Fire Department
Mamaroneck Village, with its all-volunteer force is not included in recommendations on fire service. The task force begins with suggestions for modest collaborations, like having the other two departments use the same radios and paging system (county-wide 60-control) and having them both departments respond automatically to calls in a designated area.
The group then acknowledges the imminent retirement of Larchmont’s career chief as an opportunity to eliminate further inefficiencies. One option would be a merger of the two departments, under the governance of two fire commissioners, one from each municipality.
This would be a gutsy choice, given the predictable opposition of the unionized firefighters and the wrenching transition the Village of Larchmont endured when it shifted to a career chief in 2007. However, Larchmont’s newly elected mayor, Josh Mandell, is both a volunteer firefighter, the current fire commissioner and an author of the consolidation report. His participation suggests there would be openness to such a radical change – at least on the part of Larchmont’s board.
The group considers, and largely rejects an analysis of the two fire departments by *Ned Benton, a staunch critic of hiring career chief and advocate for consolidation of Larchmont and Mamaroneck Town’s fire service. Responding to the group’s suggestions, he said: “While I stand by the findings of my report, I also commend the Study Group for moving both departments toward unified response and command.”
Tri-municipal Merger and Privatization of Assessor’s Office
Larchmont already uses the Town of Mamaroneck’s assessor. The report suggests Village of Mamaroneck could also rely on this office for most of its assessment functions. It also recommends outsourcing the functions to the private sector.
The task force does not assign a dollar value to potential savings but assumes that using non-unionized employees would be cheaper.
Consolidate Parking Permit Issuance for Larchmont and Mamaroneck Town
The group did not think it would be possible to consolidate all clerk functions for Larchmont and Mamaroneck Town in one office. However, they did think it would reduce “volatility” in the workload of both offices if all parking permits were issued in one place.
Tri-Municipal Joint Recreation Committee and Technology Committee
Merging recreation across the three communities is not expected to reduce costs, but could “reach more eligible residents and offer a larger menu of program options.”
Creation of a tri-municipal joint information technology committee might generate savings at some future date, but its intended purpose, as recommended, would be to advise the governing boards on possible improvements.
Where’s the Money?
Although the report says the municipalities could save as much as $1 million through mergers, outsourcing and other measures, most of the recommendations do not come with dollar tags attached. As the recommendations get digested by the public and the elected boards, those ideas that gain traction will likely get further study and be subjected to more detailed financial analysis.
*Judy Silberstein is married to Ned Benton.