Chemung County and City of Elmira unable to bridge the gap on consolidation

Courtesy of Rusterizer
January 16, 2014

During the State of the State address last week, Governor Cuomo called on local governments to consolidate or share services with each other.  He offered relief on property taxes as an incentive if they go along with his plan.  Consolidation can be effective, but may not be as easy as it sounds.

Governor Cuomo did not mince words.  He expects local governments to start sharing services.  In his address, he said there are 10,500 different governing bodies across the state.

“These are towns, villages, fire districts, water districts, libraries, sewage districts, one district just to count the other district in case you missed a district.  We have a proliferation of government that is exceedingly expensive and costly.”

Mike Krusen is the Deputy County Executive of Chemung County.  And he is right on board with the Governor’s message of consolidation.

“Because our experience is each and every one of the ones we’ve done have been quite successful.”

The county is currently working out a deal to take over the public works department in the town of Big Flats.

“People don’t care if the truck is blue, green, or black that pulls up in front of their house.  All they want is their pothole filled.”

The commissioner of public works in Big Flats recently left for another job.  So the county approached the town and said, ‘Hey, how about instead of hiring a new commissioner, you just let us do it?’

Big Flats was onboard and the deal is underway.

But it isn’t always so easy. The City of Elmira has its office building a block away from the county office building. And the two governments recently started working on a plan to consolidate oversight of county roads. 

But then they ran into a roadblock, literally. The Lake Street Bridge has been closed since 2011 because of structural problems.

The city’s interim planner, Kimberlee Balok Middaugh, says the county should take over bridgework like this as part of the deal.

“The cost of these bridges and the maintenance of these bridges is solely bore upon the city taxpayers.”

Middaugh argues that since people from all over the county, not just city residents, use the bridges; all taxpayers in the county should share the cost.

The county disagrees.  Deputy executive Krusen says the deal already called for the county to take over administrative and personnel costs for the city.

“And I think that they just took too big a bite of the apple and say you have to take over all of our bridges immediately also.”

There was a stalemate and the deal fell apart.

Middaugh says the city isn’t necessarily against making deals with the county, just not this one.

“I think the final discussion had gotten to the point where we just felt that the overall benefit that was being presented at that time wasn’t to the best interest of the city.”

The two governments already have a number of shared services, including management of IT services and traffic lights.

But it shows how difficult consolidation can be. Even two parties who want to work together can’t always work out an agreement.

Michael Hattery is the Director of Local Government Studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany.

“We’ve got to expect that some of these things are going to succeed and some of them are going to fail.” 

He says that in order for local governments to improve their shared services, there needs to be a culture of efficiency.  And he says that comes from better management.

“Sometimes I think that many of our governments don’t have the internal capacity to look at that every effectively and say, ‘yeah, I think there is an opportunity there.’”

He says consolidation isn’t a panacea. But, if done right, it can be successful.