By JOHN PURCELL
Recorder News Staff
Montgomery County has received a $50,000 state grant to study how shared services and consolidation efforts could benefit local taxpayers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday that Montgomery County was among six local governments awarded a total of $300,000 in grants for proposals to achieve taxpayer savings as part of the Phase 1 of the Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition. Montgomery County and all of the 21 municipalities within it will use the $50,000 to complete a study about a countywide restructuring of services and how to build upon existing shared services.
County Executive Matthew Ossenfort said the chief executive, such as mayor or town supervisor, for each municipality had signed off on supporting the proposed study, which will evaluate cost savings measures between municipalities. Ossenfort said the county will provide $10,000 worth of in-kind services toward completion the study.
Ossenfort said there was a lot of support from local officials to apply for the grant funding to pursue the study.
“When we found out about this competition we convened a group of elected officials from across the county,” Ossenfort said. “I was very skeptical of what the response would be. However, to my surprise there was a willingness to look at this. This wasn’t something that was a top down approach; this is something that the initiative to put in an application to begin this process came from local government in Montgomery County.”
The most drastic potential measures to be studied would include the dissolution of municipalities, but less drastic measures such as increasing shared services would be reviewed, Ossenfort said. The Phase 1 plan is more broad, but the grant funding will be used to review specific measures to reduce the size of government and implement potential efficiencies.
“Government efficiency, shared services and consolidation has always been a priority since we started,” Ossenfort said. “It started with our first local government efficiency plan that was part of the governor’s property tax freeze plan, which by submitting that the homeowners got their property tax relief check in the mail.”
All Phase 1 winners are eligible to compete for the grand prize of $20 million, which will be awarded to to the “most innovative plan for consolidation, dissolution, service-sharing and other cost-saving measures,” according to the Governor’s Office. The grand prize winner is planned to be announced this summer.
The due date for the final plan is June 28 and local officials will present the proposal to Division of Local Government Services officials in mid-July. The grand prize winner is scheduled to be announced in September.
Ossenfort and representatives from the Montgomery County Business Development Center attended a conference Wednesday with representatives from the other Phase 1 winners to learn more about the process moving forward.
“Yes, there’s $20 million at stake for the winner, but really there were no losers in the room,” Ossenfort said about the Wednesday conference. “Everyone is getting $50,000 to further their plan and even if they aren’t selected the winner there’s a whole host of grants available through the state Division of Local Government Services to implement the ideas formulated in our plan.”
Ossenfort said if the county was selected as the grand prize winner the $20 million would be available to implement its plan, such as funding capital costs or hiring professional services. He said the state funds would be provided on a reimbursement basis.
“They encouraged us to think big and put some bold ideas in the plan and the reimbursement process will be honed in a little more down the line,” Ossenfort said.
Plans will be scored on how much the proposal is estimated to reduce the local tax burden after full implementation of the plan.
“It’s going to really give, especially some of the villages and towns, a chance to really look at initiatives that can save money and how they can work together,” Ossenfort said.
Ossenfort said the county’s plan must include the study of at least one consolidation of a municipal entity, but it does not mean the consolidation has to be implemented. Voters in a respective municipality would ultimately have the final say if a municipality were going to fully consolidate into an adjoining municipality.
“It gives us the ability to look at these things, crunch the numbers and see what the savings would be,” Ossenfort said.
Ossenfort said all the chief officers of municipalities in the county signed a letter for support for the application to receive the state funding to pursue a study.
“They’re all interested in looking at it and that’s a good step forward,” Ossenfort said. “It can’t hurt to look at it. This is obviously can be a touchy subject and we don’t want to have anyone think that we’re trying to force anything upon a local government, but I think taking a look at it is a first step.”
Ossenfort said compared to recent comments about Fultonville officials opting against any direct study with Fonda about enhancing shared services or consolidation, elected officials in the western portion of the county appeared more receptive to similar efforts.
“We received a very different attitude and view towards government efficient from those in the western part of the county that have signed on to this plan,” Ossenfort said. “They’re willing to look at it, so that’s a good step.”
Ossenfort said a number of the ideas included in the initial proposal were spurred by representatives from the western portion of the county, such as the similarity between villages and how to work together.
Ossenfort said records and content management within the county has been a major issue to address, so awarded funds could be used to purchase software and actually have people scan documents.
The county has previously secured grant funding to begin implementing a records management and digitization plan in partnership with the city of Amsterdam and the towns of Amsterdam and Florida.
“Even with the funds we have, we only have the funding to digitize so much,” Ossenfort said. “It would help us not expand throughout the county, but do more digitization and more content management.”
Ossenfort said if there is support from the public and political will from local elected officials to implement aspects of the plan, Montgomery County will have a good shot at winning the $20 million.
“I think really what the state is looking for is a community to be an example for the rest of the state on how this can be done, and can be done effectively,” Ossenfort said. “Implementing is what they’re really looking at, which one of these applicants can actually get this done.”
The Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition complements Cuomo’s proposal to empower counties to propose a shared services plan, which would be presented to their voters.
“The most burdensome tax in New York remains the property tax and this competition is designed to help local governments work together to cut costs, share services and streamline inefficiencies in order to reduce burdens on property taxpayers,” Cuomo said in a news release. “With this next phase of the competition, we will continue to work together to find opportunities to deliver cost-effective services and help lower property taxes.”