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New York Conference of Mayors Calls for Amendments

Westbury’s Mayor Weighs In 

The sponsors call it the “Empowerment Act” for short, but local governments are calling it the “Disenfranchisement Act” because the sweeping legislation passed this June, going into effect in March 2010, requires residents to vote to dissolve or consolidate local government before they know whether such actions will or will not save them money.

“There’s a lot of confusion about the Act and it’s up to you to educate your residents so they’ll know that signing a petition for dissolution sets into motion a complicated, expensive process where the cart is before the horse,” Wade Beltramo, special counsel for the New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM), told a roomful of mayors and village officials from Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties at an Oct. 29 NYCOM meeting held at Mineola High School.

Beltramo spent the evening giving a quick course in the new act, which is summarized below.

New York State has experience with village dissolutions. Under the old law and since 1972, 19 villages across the state have dissolved. When a village is dissolved, residents still need garbage pickup, roads plowed and maintained, police protection, fires fought, sewage whisked away, building codes enforced and zoning laws upheld. Beltramo said that ironically what happens next is that special districts, usually under town oversight, are created to provide those services. For every one village dissolution, three to eight special districts are formed.

Residents of villages such as Westbury pay townwide taxes, even if they receive few services directly from the town. Because village governments provide many services, village residents are in essence subsidizing town government. Often, when a village dissolves, and the town has to pick up the costs of those services, town residents’ taxes go up.

Actually, according to Beltramo, while the act was pushed through as a property tax-saving measure, it only applies to 12 percent of the property tax pie. He said, “It’s not manna from heaven.”

Under the new Act, if 10 percent of the “electors” sign a petition calling for a dissolution referendum, the village clerk has 10 days to determine the validity of the signatures. However, the collection of signatures has no time limit and those circulating the petition may or may not be residents. For small villages with 500 or less electors, 20 percent of the signatures would be required. A village with 500 electors would require 100 signatures, whereas, a village with 600 electors would require 60 signatures.

After petitions are filed, a village board would then be required to enact a resolution calling for a referendum. A vote would be held between 60 and 90 days past the date of the resolution. If the vote fails, dissolution cannot be brought back to voters for another four years. If the vote passes, the village has to develop a plan for dissolution within 180 days. This involves establishing a study committee and hiring a planning consulting firm.

Beltramo spelled out the following scenario. “Let’s say the village board, after conducting the study, concludes that significant savings would not be realized with dissolution and recommends against it,” he said. “Then what happens?” According to Beltramo, the plan would go into effect anyway, unless 25 percent of the electors’ petition against the plan within 45 days after the final plan has been accepted. “This is a huge hurdle…and becomes dissolution by default…It’s relatively easy to start the process, but more difficult to turn it around,” he said.

NYCOM is calling for the following amendments to the law before it goes into effect in March: 1) Raise signature threshold for dissolutions to 25 percent; the old law required 33 percent; 2) Clarify the petition signature process; 3) Do not hold a vote without first conducting a study; 4) Lengthen timeframes for conducting the study; 5) Allow the democratically elected board to approve or disapprove dissolution after receiving study, including the approval of dissolution subject to a mandatory referendum and disapproval of dissolution subject to a permissive referendum; 6) Require the vote to be held during a normally scheduled election.

Westbury Village Mayor Peter Cavallaro said he supports looking into ways for government to be more efficient and believes that, in some cases, consolidation of services may be appropriate but feels “the wholesale dissolution of villages, especially under this new law’s framework, will lead to additional taxpayer expense and additional layers of government and special districts.”

Cavallaro continued, “Many studies have shown that village government, the closest to the residents, is the most efficient level of government, with services provided in the best and most cost-effective manner possible. So, the bill’s application to villages, especially with the poorly constructed procedural steps set out in the new law, is a disservice to residents.”

The mayor believes this new law would enable outside forces to come into a village that is doing well, such as Westbury, and force the residents to spend tax dollars and hire consultants to analyze something that is not favored by a majority of residents. “New York Sate law, prior to the new law being passed, provided a mechanism that worked for the dissolution of villages where the local people wanted to dissolve their village,” said Cavallaro. “That is the wrong approach, and needs to be fixed. The new law was ill-conceived as it relates to villages, and was hastily passed for political reasons that have nothing to do with good government. The law needs to be fixed by exempting villages from the new procedures or revamped to make them more appropriate and less costly for taxpayers.”