COLUMN: Dissolution is serious business with serious consequences

When Rushville voted “no” to dissolution last week, the reaction was mixed — as one could imagine.

Opponents celebrated, while concerned residents who wanted to see dissolution take place were a mixed bag of disappointed and upset.

You can’t blame them.

Dissolving is serious business, with serious implications — especially for a community that straddles two counties. Use each village in the Finger Lakes that has dissolved — Seneca Falls, Lyons, and Macedon — as case studies for a process that’s equal parts flawed and beneficial.

Village residents claim the ultimate benefit of lower taxes, as one layer of government disappears. That said, those same residents lose an opportunity to be politically involved, if the desire exists there at all.

I’ll touch on that last point later, but there are other benefits to mention: sharing more services, reducing costs for those communities involved, and giving all governing bodies involved a “fresh start.”

It’s a process a lot of people don’t understand, though.

The legal process of executing or even moving toward dissolution is complicated enough; combine that with the act of dissolving the services into the new town — or in Rushville’s situation multiple towns — and it leaves elected officials, employees, and administrators with an incredibly difficult task: Merge all the things, complete all the appropriate paperwork, and be sure to not forget even the smallest detail because it could have a permanent and lasting impact on residents across the board.

Dissolution cannot simply be thrown together. Studies and evidence need to be shown off to the entire community, not just those voting on the dissolution. They must be presented to those who will pick up the added burden of a dissolved village.

Promises must be made — and kept — while going through the dissolution process, and long-term guarantees need to be made to residents.

Taxes are going down, you say? For how long? At how much of a savings to village residents, and what added benefits will town residents receive at the added cost of taking on an entire village? Literally.

While it can appear completely sensible to “dissolve” a village, a more beneficial action would be to dissolve or merge individual services. There’s a fundamental flaw in the notion that simply eliminating administrative staff, elected officials, or other incidentals in a village will result in savings across the board.

Services must be provided. Leadership roles must be filled. Money will still be spent to accommodate a new, larger crowd than either is accustomed to serving.

Cost, cost, and more cost.

Taxes rise.

Ten years after dissolution happens, town taxes could conceivably be higher than the original village property taxes. That’s a possibility that residents in dissolved communities locally must consider. Residents in Seneca Falls have been threatened with a variety of potential tax increases, for a variety of mostly political reasons.

That’s not to pick on Seneca Falls. It’s just a simple example that taxpayers are now living through.

Instead of focusing energy on dissolving an entire governing entity into another, elected officials should be doing their job.

For decades, municipalities have been “sharing” services in rural parts of upstate New York. We’ve become particularly good at it here in the Finger Lakes. Even now, county boards, through the leadership of county managers and county administrators, are looking at ways to simplify and share services.

It’s not easy to say, but here’s the truth:

Dissolution is an easy, short-term answer to a complicated, long-term problem.

Dissolution creates a short-term promise of savings, which includes no obligation to any community involved that those savings will be permanent or lasting. That’s because predicting cost in a cost-inflated world is simply not possible.

Services are merged under this circumstance, but it’s done so in a rushed, sometimes thoughtless way.

That’s not to say dissolution couldn’t be executed in a way that achieved these things, but the process doesn’t demand it, so it removes accountability.

Dissolution presents itself as the ultimate in cost-savings and unification. However, that simply isn’t guaranteed. Not in the long-term anyway.

The only thing dissolution guarantees is eliminating another platform for folks to be involved at the local level. While confidence in regional or state-elected officials continues to plummet.

This column was originally published in the Finger Lakes Times. Read more here.

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