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Clayton town, village study further consolidations

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CLAYTON — Preparing for implementation of the property tax freeze, village and town officials worry there aren’t many services left to merge to qualify for state rebate incentives.

“We won’t necessarily be penalized, but we won’t be rewarded,” Town Councilman Robert W. Cantwell III said. “We’re worried that we’ve been efficient all along and other towns, who are just starting to consolidate, will get the reward.”

Village and town officials met Thursday at the village municipal building with Zoning Board members, the town and village clerks and a representative of the state Department of State.

Sean M. Maguire, a training specialist with the Department of State Division of Local Government Services, said he works with municipalities to find cost savings that could have been overlooked at the local level.

“I think what we need to look at is an inventory of government operations,” he said.

The legislation will freeze property taxes for two years, subject to two conditions. In year one, the state will provide tax rebates only to homeowners who live in a jurisdiction that stays within the 2 percent property tax cap. In year two, the state will provide tax rebates only to homeowners who live in a locality that stays within the cap and agrees to implement a shared services or administrative consolidation plan.

The freeze will not apply to New York City, which does not have a property tax cap.

Once fully implemented, this tax relief proposal will provide nearly $1 billion in relief with an average benefit of approximately $350 for nearly 2.8 million homeowners.

The state budget dedicated $1.5 billion to offer a “rebate” to homeowners whose taxing jurisdictions meet the state’s property tax cap. For residents to receive the refund, their taxing jurisdictions must show efforts to consolidate and share services, although they can cite previous efforts to qualify.

State Division of Budget spokesman Morris A. Peters said the terminology is loosely written and will allow municipalities that completed consolidation projects within the last year to be eligible by the June 1, 2015, deadline. He said this will allow municipalities that are ready to start a consolidation project to move forward with it rather than waiting.

“We’re hoping to encourage good behavior going forward,” Mr. Peters said.

He said there isn’t any “hard-fast rule” about how recently a project was completed to qualify for the incentive. He said ultimately it’s up to the discretion of Budget Director Robert L. Megna to determine which projects qualify.

Town Supervisor Justin A. Taylor said the municipalities have spent a great deal of time to conserve resources on all government levels. He said the most recent consolidation project between the town and the village was implemented about six years ago, when the governments created a shared courtroom at the village municipal building.

Mayor Norma J. Zimmer said the village and the town already have taken vigorous steps to ensure they can share costs of services and still provide adequate services for community members.

“That’s why people choose to live in Clayton; things get done,” she said. To make further drastic cuts without dropping the level of services will be difficult, she said.

Mr. Taylor said officials organized the meeting last week in anticipation of the property tax freeze being adopted in the state’s budget.

“One of the biggest concerns all local entities had was that they were not well versed in the tax cap freeze and the governor’s stress on consolidating services,” Mr. Taylor said. “We wanted to make sure there were no stones left unturned.”

He said the town and village already share zoning officers, youth commission services, a zoning board, zoning board officers, a planning board, a courthouse and a highway department.

Mr. Cantwell said the town already has made drastic changes and consolidated all of the smaller services it can, picking all the “low-hanging fruit.” He said officials need to search for other consolidation measures they might have overlooked.

One thing the boards said is worth discussing is further consolidation of the town and village courts.

Mr. Taylor said the town is required to have two justices. In the past, one of the town justices also served as village justice. In 2013, the shared justice retired and instead of one justice serving both the village and town courts, two justices were hired.

Mr. Maguire said it will be up to the boards to decide if they would like his team in Albany to study possible cuts and further consolidations.

A second town and village meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. April 28 at the municipal building, 425 Mary St.

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