Morgan Frisch/Recorder staff
A group raises their hands in support of Montgomery County’s Shared Services Property Tax Savings Plan on Wednesday after a presentation from Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort.

By MORGAN FRISCH

Recorder News Staff

JOHNSTOWN — A majority of those in attendance raised their hand in support of Montgomery County’s Shared Services Property Tax Savings Plan on Wednesday after an open forum.

Montgomery County Executive Matthew Ossenfort led the discussion in the large lounge of the Student Union Building at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. The forum was open to the public to hear Ossenfort review 12 initiatives that are intended to save property taxpayers money by identifying collaborative opportunities for shared services between as many local governments as possible.

Under the state budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated the County-Wide Shared Services Initiative in which the chief executive officers of each county are required to establish a shared services panel and develop a county-wide shared services property tax savings plan.

The panel is led by Ossenfort and members include supervisors and mayors from each municipality. The full panel was not present, but several municipal leaders attended.

Plans that create actual savings may be eligible for a one-time match of the net savings. The plan must be submitted to the county legislature for review by Aug. 1. There needs to be public hearings and modifications made by Sept. 15 and a public presentation by Oct. 15.

Ossenfort described the 12 initiatives as “outside of the box” and “bold” and said the impact on government services they focus on is improving services, reducing costs, improving compliance and avoiding capital costs.

Ossenfort explained most of the work that has been done for the shared services plan relates to the Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Plan (MCEP). The county was one of six finalists to compete for a $20 million state prize. He said the county submitted its more than 500 page application on June 28.

“Simultaneously, we have the governor’s shared services panel which is a separate initiative in which any savings that this plan results in next year are eligible for a one time match,” he said.

Some of the major initiatives discussed Wednesday were the consolidation of the village and town of Canajoharie, and a shared municipal building in Canajoharie. As well, the consolidation of court systems, law enforcement and improved electronic records management.

Ossenfort detailed each of the 12 initiatives, which included the project’s estimated cost savings to the county.

The consolidation of the village and town of Canajoharie could be a cost savings up to $330,000 in the first year, substantially due to the potential of transferring police functions to the county sheriff’s office.

Ossenfort said it could be up to $330,000 because maintaining the level of service the village has now would require additional power at the sheriff’s office. He said the early estimate was $130,000, which would still provide a $200,000 cost savings.

He mentioned how much detail the Maxwell School put into analyzing the village and the town. Students from the school also completed a detailed village and town merger-related study for the county.

“The first challenge that was readily apparent is how do we prevent town taxpayers from subsidizing village services and how do we ensure that village services are maintained to the level that the village residents expect,” he said.

Ossenfort said one of the issues across the county was the need for office space and mentioned the initiative for the shared municipal building in Canajoharie. He said the county is looking to find a creative idea for the corporate part of the former Beech-Nut building.

“It is an important predicate to further expansion of shared services through functional integration of government operations,” Ossenfort said.

In Fort Plain, Ossenfort said 50 percent of the residents’ tax levy goes to law enforcement and the village of Canajoharie spends approximately $328,790 per year on law enforcement.

“What we are proposing is a consolidation of that service,” Ossenfort said. “Obviously, by supporting this plan and moving forward with this, these villages have supported the concept, but ultimately that is a decision that is going to have to be made on a local level.”

The function would be transferred to the sheriff’s office and reduce the cost for both villages.

Steph Helmin from Fultonville asked if there would be a law enforcement presence at the proposed shared municipal building in Canajoharie if those departments were eliminated.

Ossenfort said yes and having a sheriff’s post there with a court facility would provide law enforcement closer to the people they are serving rather than driving back and forth from Fonda.

Helmin asked if he would expect any impact to the existing public safety facility. Ossenfort said no.

“We think it could be a stable tenant moving forward in that western part of the Beech-Nut facility and be a win for a whole host of entities,” he said.

The electronic records management initiative is in relation to grants the county has already received to start shared services project between the county, city and town of Amsterdam and town of Florida.

Ossenfort said the initiative is using technology to be more efficient to save time and money. This would include moving all records to a fully electronic management focused environment and the IT platform would enable county municipalities to a range of back office services.

“Having the capital to get some of these things done is really going to be a catalyst for savings down the road because it’s going to have to happen eventually and if we can get it done quickly and now, we will all be better off for it,” Ossenfort said.

District 9 Legislator Robert Purtell asked for a further explanation of the initiative titled “Maxwell laboratory.”

Montgomery County Senior Planner William Roehr, who was also available for questions, said it would basically be a formal relationship with the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs out of Syracuse. Students from the Maxwell School were hired to complete a detailed village and town merger-related study for the county. He said they would continue ongoing research for all of the implemented projects and possibly begin a series of workshops and projects regarding consolidation and shared services.

Canajoharie Village Mayor Francis Avery said he could support the plan, but “the devil is in the details.” If the town and village were consolidated, he questioned what would happen with the water and sewer as an example.

Ossenfort said the full dissolution plan is not done, but it is well on its way.

The plan will be submitted to the legislature, and the panel must vote before it is forwarded to the state.

“I think this is a great opportunity for our community to be progressive,” Purtell said. “Montgomery County started being progressive in the change of government four years ago. I think it shows in our community’s interest moving forward and I think there are great opportunities that exist here to work on our relationships between our individual communities.”