This year’s state budget includes a County-wide Shared Services Initiative that requires a property tax savings plan to be developed by the County Executive, working with municipalities. The goal is to save money by identifying collaborative opportunities among local governments, identifying shared or consolidated services that can achieve recurring savings.
While the legislation gives responsibility to County Executive Dan McCoy for assembling the plan, he is to work with a panel comprised supervisors and mayors, as well as school district leaders that choose to participate. This “shared services panel” must approve the plan – a change from the initial proposal was to require County Legislature approval prior to public referendum. Having supervisors and mayors at the table will ensure municipal input and approval, and multiple hearings and input from civic and labor leaders are also required. One-time matching state aid is provided as an incentive and to help defray start-up costs.
The new law mandates that a shared services plan be put together, but what that plan includes is completely at local discretion. It can include any mix of initiatives, and each locality can choose to be involved in only those sharing initiatives that work for them. Really, it’s a blank slate, premised on the idea that there are still some duplicative, overlapping or inefficiently scaled services. While some have questioned the mandated approach, it’s hard to be against the goals.
The timeframe is tight: the plan is to be put together by August 1 and finalized by September 15 (this year). While that deadline may be short for really big initiatives, there’s no reason not to pursue a robust discussion to see if we can jointly identify savings opportunities and garner state funds to help implement them.
Bethlehem has done very well through savings initiatives like combining Highway and Parks maintenance, restructuring tax collections and consolidating ambulance districts. These actions helped reduce town expenditures by more than $2 million annually and were rewarded by a $776,000 performance award from NYS, which we applied to tax relief, community improvements and technology upgrades.
Two years ago Albany County municipalities working together identified more than $15 million in efficiency savings, but we shouldn’t stop there. That study, pursued with the assistance of the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz (formerly CRREO), also identified areas for further local action, as well as for state mandate relief. There is always more to do. The mandated Countywide Shared Services Initiative, while by no means perfect, provides an opportunity for local leaders to make improvements, develop new ideas and also to engage state government on mandate relief.
Let’s not miss this important opportunity.
John Clarkson is serving his third term as Bethlehem Town Supervisor. During the Spitzer-Paterson years, he served as executive director of the NYS Commission on Local Government Efficiency.