Northern New York Newspapers
NNY Business
NNY Living
Thu., Sep. 3
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
In print daily. Online always.

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New York state has thousands of taxing jurisdictions including village, town, city and county governments, school districts and special fire, water, sewer and lighting districts.

The multiple and overlapping layers are a major reason for New Yorkers’ high property taxes levied to pay for the duplication of elected offices, highway departments, planning and zoning boards and police departments along with the resources needed to support them.

Three years ago, the state passed legislation to encourage residents to streamline government operations through consolidation or mergers by offering the carrot of incentive aid to reduce costs. The 2009 law has produced several studies in the north country, but north country residents are showing little interest in disbanding local governments despite potential savings and lower property taxes.

The villages of Chaumont and Malone in the last election overwhelmingly rejected referendums to dissolve and let their respective towns take over municipal services. The vote was 145-102 in Chuamont; 1,117- 562 in Malone. Last year, Potsdam village residents also turned down a plan to eliminate that layer of government and the duplication of costs and services accompanying it.

The votes capped months of study and heated public debate in which opponents questioned the long-term property tax savings projected in the independent studies.

Village residents were unable to overcome their fears and uncertainty about the loss of services, particularly their village police departments when other police agencies — either the Sheriff’s Department or state police — could not assure them of the same level of protection.

Skeptics doubted that the state would keep its promise of incentive aid through the Citizen Empowerment Tax Credit program that would help lower their tax burden. However, taxes for village residents would have gone down even without the aid.

Local distrust of higher levels of government is not unusual, but there was a surprising undercurrent of villagers’ distrust of their town officials, whom they help elect as town voters. On several occasions village residents questioned whether town leaders would follow through on the dissolution plan or have sufficient regard for village interests after dissolution. Although dissolution risked raising taxes on property owners outside the village, they had no say in the decision.

The villages and towns are looking to more traditional, less drastic ways to streamline operations by sharing services, but that has limits as the municipalities confront rising costs, especially skyrocketing pension and health benefits.

Disbanding villages involves risks that Chaumont and Malone residents are unwilling to take even if it would make government more efficient and reduce their tax burden. They shouldn’t complain too loudly about the higher taxes they pay to keep their identity and autonomy.

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