Consolidating Norwich: Keep an open mind

Local governments should keep an open mind when it comes to consolidating or sharing more services with other municipalities, two area business and commerce leaders say.

NBT Bancorp President and CEO Martin A. Dietrich says local government efficiency is critical to a community’s success, and in general believes that local leaders work efficiently. He points out, however, that the framework they operate in is over 100 years old.

“If we were to start now with a clean sheet of paper, would we draw up the city, villages and towns the way they are today? Probably not. Our challenge going forward is to – through shared-service agreements, consolidation of services or other means – develop a more efficient framework through which our local government can provide necessary services,” said Dietrich. “We continually do this in the business world, and we have done it with our school systems. It would seem to be a good time now to look more aggressively at ways that this can be done with our local governments.”

Consolidating the towns of North Norwich and Norwich into the City of Norwich would cut personnel costs $214,000 immediately and increase annual sales tax and state aid revenues into the millions over the next five years, according to a study released Wednesday by the state Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness. The city could also be dissolved into the town(s), which could produce savings if expensive city services like police and fire were reconfigured, but less revenue would be available under state municipal laws, the study, conducted for the commission by the Center on Governmental Research, concludes.

Talk of merging governments raises a number of concerns, Chenango County Farm Bureau President Bradd Vickers said.

“Is it really cost efficient?” Vickers asked. “Just because you’ve put everything under one roof, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve reduced the cost. You may in fact increase the cost.”

Vickers said in many cases when farms try to cut costs by sharing, it doesn’t reduce the amount of machines that are still needed. Furthermore, the window of time a farmer has to use that machinery often shrinks.

“When you talk about consolidation, you also have to realize that the minute you start reducing local governments, it’s a detriment to democracy,” said Vickers. “The farther you get from local input, the less government by the people you have. That is a big concern.”

The commission also released a full report that outlines over $700 million in possible annual savings for local governments state-wide. The recommendations include consolidating smaller school districts, centralizing services – like highway and assessments – at the county or regional level and requiring public employees to make minimum contributions to their health care plans.

Commerce Chenango President and CEO Maureen Carpenter said the options for consolidation and shared services can act as a first step toward achieving greater efficiency, and should be investigated further.

“This is only the first step in working towards government efficiency. The report clearly outlines what some of the major barriers have been and will be moving forward,” said Carpenter. “It is the desire of the Chamber and its membership to see cooperation among our municipal leaders to participate in more studies that will dive deeper into the realities of government consolidation and/or shared services.”

The Commerce Chenango Board of Directors passed a resolution at its April meeting in support of efforts to ease the local tax burden, including investigating areas of government consolidation and shared services.

“Our community does not need additional layers of government, but rather a system of transparency, cooperation and in some cases even compromise to do what is best for the economic vitality of our area,” Carpenter added.

According to an annual report released by the State Comptroller’s office in 2007, local government spending is increasing at more than double the rate of inflation.

Big spenders like the City of Norwich should find ways to reduce their costs, rather than have their spending habits be reinforced by merging other municipalities, like the Town of Norwich, into the city structure, said Aurora Heights resident Cliff Tamsett.

“The Town of Norwich is one of the few municipalities that spends conservatively,” said Tamsett.

Tamsett believes increased city spending could be curbed by consolidating public safety into regional districts, where personnel act as police, fire and EMS officers. He added that if anything, the commission should be recommending that city be dissolved into the town, which could lower municipal personnel costs since those position would become non-union.

“The local government problem is excessive spending,” said Tamsett. “The city government seems to think its existence – and continued view of how government spending should be – is supreme.”

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