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Government Consolidation Bill Passes Assembly, Senate

Law Would Give Residents, County Power To Dissolve

A government consolidation law to streamline the process to dissolve villages, towns and special districts passed overwhelmingly in the New York State Assembly and Senate and now awaits Governor David Paterson’s signature.

The legislation, dubbed the New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, was introduced by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver at the behest of Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and sponsored in the Senate by Majority Leader Malcolm Smith. According to proponents, it is a “bipartisan legislative initiative” aimed at reducing costs for taxpayers by encouraging local government efficiency through consolidation.

According to Cuomo, the state’s overlapping governments saddle residents with the nation’s highest local taxes. The bill will not mandate consolidation but rather restructure the law to allow citizens, local officials and counties to make the decisions themselves. The bill states that “… the astounding number of local governments in New York has contributed to the rise of local real property taxes. Throughout the state there are large pockets of overlapping taxing entities ... Nassau and Suffolk Counties combined have over 340 special districts…”

In all, the attorney general notes that there are more than 10,500 governmental entities imposing taxes and fees across New York State, including towns, villages, districts and special districts such as water, sewer and lighting districts with some Nassau County residents served by multiple taxing jurisdictions. The New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, however, specifically applies to towns, villages, districts, special or other improvement districts, library districts and other special districts created by law. It does not apply to school districts, city districts and special purpose districts counties have established under local law.

In part, the legislation states that the filing of a petition containing the signatures of at least 10 percent of electors or 5,000 electors (whichever is less) in each local government entity to be consolidated or dissolved triggers the citizen-initiated process. For small entities with 500 or fewer electors, the petition can contain the signatures of at least 20 percent of the electors.

Further, the petition requires a referendum to be held in each of the entities. If a majority of the electorate in each entity votes in favor of consolidation or dissolution, then the entities’ governing body or bodies must meet and develop a proposed written plan to implement the voters’ decision, followed by the plan’s publication and public hearings.

In the case of the Village of Westbury, with approximately 14,000 residents, 1,400 signatures on a petition could compel the village to spend tens of thousands of dollars to conduct a dissolution study and then a public referendum during which a simple majority could dissolve the village. If the vote is unsuccessful the first time it can be revisited in three years; if successful, the village board would have to create a dissolution plan that would not be approved by village residents.

Consolidation or dissolution would take effect when the governing body or bodies approve a final version of the plan. However, citizens may, within 45-days after the plan’s final approval, petition for a permissive referendum on the question whether the plan should take effect. To compel such a referendum, the petition must contain the signatures of at least 25 percent or 15,000 electors, whichever is less, in each local government entity to be consolidated or dissolved, the bill reads.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb said the legislation “empowers taxpayers, local officials and counties to reorganize outdated and inefficient local governments and establishes uniform, user-friendly procedures for local governments to consolidate, or dissolve, so localities may enhance their delivery of services, achieve financial savings and reduce local property taxes.”

Cuomo hailed the Assembly’s and Senate’s passage of the legislation, stating, “I applaud Speaker Silver and Minority Leader Kolb for working together to pass a truly historic piece of legislation … For more than 75 years, the issue of government consolidation has been examined and studied to death. Now, thanks to strong leadership in the Assembly, New Yorkers are one step closer to having the power to initiate real reform in their communities and lower their tax burden. I look forward to the measure’s swift passage in the Senate.”

The attorney general added, “I commend the state Senate for taking action on such a critical issue … New York is now at an historic crossroads decades in the making. Taxpayers may soon be truly empowered to create long overdue efficiencies in local governments and special districts across our state. I thank the governor for his support throughout the process and I look forward to this bill finally giving New York’s overburdened taxpayers the ability, where appropriate, to streamline their local governments and cut their property taxes.”

Westbury Village Mayor Peter Cavallaro, who, along with mayors from village’s across Nassau County – including neighboring Mineola and Garden City – is opposed to the government consolidation plan. Cavallaro said he is “very disappointed that the legislature has chosen to send to Governor Paterson for his signature the faulty consolidation bill, without a carve-out for villages, as the Nassau Village Officials’ Association and the New York State Conference of Mayors had urged.”

The bill, said Cavallaro, “does a disservice to the most economical and efficient level of government [villages] while leaving unaddressed areas of waste and inefficiency at other levels, such as state government. Unfortunately, while most village residents, including Westbury’s, are very happy with their village governments and would not support efforts to eliminate them, this bill could result in the waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars if villages are forced, due to the actions of a very small minority of residents, to conduct unnecessary dissolution studies, or are required to go through the other procedural machinations required by the bill.”

Cavallaro added that he is “pleased that most of Westbury’s state representatives – including Senator Craig Johnson and Assemblymen Rob Walker and Tom McKevitt – stood up for villages by voting against the bill.”

While the need for real property tax relief is real and immediate, Walker (R-15th A.D.) believes the New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act is not the answer. “As the legislation is currently written, a village, library, water district or fire district can be consolidated even when a community does not want or vote for consolidation,” he said. “Consolidation can be implemented by the county even if the residents do not start a petition process. Additionally, there is no guarantee that services will remain at or near the same level and might, in fact, be reduced.”

Walker, who opposed the legislation, added that New York State does need the ability to consolidate and allow its residents the ability to call for a referendum via an easier petition process. “That is a good thing. And we certainly need the means to reduce the overburdening property taxes we pay, especially on Long Island. But we do not need to move the control of local services to a larger government entity like the county from the most local and most efficient government; our towns, villages and cities without any assurances that there will actually be a reduction in costs without a tremendous loss in the quality services,” he said.

Johnson (D-7th S.D), who also voted no on the bill, said, “While I am in favor of empowering residents to determine their own future, I believe that many parts of this measure are fundamentally flawed and contain too many pitfalls. Taken as a sum of its parts, it is my belief that this legislation will inflict harm on our communities.”

The senator believes this is especially true in regards to local fire departments: “These brave men and women volunteer their time and put their lives on the line to protect their neighbors and their neighborhoods,” he said.

The legislation gives counties the authority to force a referendum on abolishing local governments, including fire and other public safety districts, Johnson said. At first, Senate Republicans amended the legislation, exempting fire districts. But Johnson said that the proposed exemptions did not include fire protection districts and village fire departments.

With 33 villages in his district, including Westbury, the senator also criticized the low voter threshold. He disagrees that a referendum based on the signatures from one out of every 10 people living within a local government reflects democracy. “A low petition threshold leaves many of smaller government entities open to the whims of either a disgruntled few or the agenda of an outside organization,” he said.

Johnson said the bill would also allow outside people or groups to organize petitions to abolish or consolidate local governments. He thinks it would be more prudent to require all petitions be carried by residents of the municipality under consideration.

“The measure’s language also allows an open-ended petition process – meaning that a petition drive could start now and last 10 years in order to get the required number of signatures,” he added. “There is no provision to include towns in the process, and if a local government is abolished, it is unclear which entity would assume zoning authority and other powers — as counties do not provide many local functions.”

The Assembly approved the bill by a vote of 117 to 26 on June 1. Days later, on June 3, the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 46 to 16. As of press time, the governor had not yet signed it into law; the law would go into effect 270 days after Governor Paterson signs it into law.

For more information about the New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act and to view an interactive map detailing special districts in New York State by county, visit www.oag.state.ny.us. For additional information, visit www.assembly.state.ny.us and search bill #A8501 or visit www.nysenate.gov and search bill #S5661.