Officials consider county options
WATKINS GLEN—County officials from both Yates and Schuyler met with the Schuyler League of Women Voters Wednesday, May 1 to discuss the options the counties are looking at for shared services and the potential for a possible merger.
Schuyler County Administrator Tim O’Hearn gave a presentation during the luncheon at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel explaining the situation each county is in and how the talk of a merger came about. He said he and Yates County Administrator Sarah Purdy had joked about the idea for years, but decided to look at the issue seriously after the counties passed their 2013 budgets with Yates experiencing a 14.7 percent tax levy increase and Schuyler with a 5.9 percent increase. O’Hearn said these increases are unacceptable.
“In the constraints we are working in, we are doing the best we can,” O’Hearn said. “It is not enough.”
O’Hearn said neither county is committed to any particular idea, which include potentially sharing services, sharing administrative staff, merging or even dissolution, and are merely looking at all options available.
“There is no specific direction at this point,” O’Hearn said.
He said if there is a viable option, they will not rule it out. O’Hearn said their decision will not be based on emotion, and that a data driven assessment will be conducted pending the approval of a grant application to conduct the study. He said even if they do not receive the grant, each county will continue to meet and discuss what measures can be taken to reduce the cost of government.
“Are we willing to accept transformational changes rather than just pay lip service to ideas?” O’Hearn asked. He said the implementation of the findings of this study could take place anywhere between 2014 and 2024, including any service consolidation in the beginning and potentially leading to a merger if the counties decide upon that option.
O’Hearn said Yates and Schuyler Counties are very similar to one another and that geography comes into play significantly when looking at a potential merger. He said both counties have a very homogenous population, with similar median incomes, poverty levels, and economies that are tourism and agriculture based. O’Hearn said the fiber optic broadband expansion project in Yates complements what Schuyler is already a year into and will allow for increased economic development and expansion for both counties.
He also said if combined, the total landmass of Yates and Schuyler would still only be half the size of Steuben County. He said a merger at the county level would be unprecedented in the state and would require state support and approval if it were to happen. O’Hearn said the study they are looking at conducting would be a year-long study that would make recommendations and identify some “low-hanging fruit” the counties could take advantage of in sharing services.
“Desperation does force decisions,” O’Hearn said. “Whether this is a crisis or an opportunity remains to be seen.”
Yates County Chairman Taylor Fitch said both counties have mutual needs they are looking to address. He said Yates County opted to not deplete their fund balance this year, hitting the taxpayer “extremely hard” with a 14.7 percent tax levy increase. He said Yates and Schuyler are two small counties that if something big happened there could potentially drive them into bankruptcy.
“If we are so similar why not look at it?” Fitch said. He said by the time a merger could actually be acted upon, there will be a number of different legislators in each county, and he would like to see if the political will stays there when it comes to working together.
Schuyler County Chairman Dennis Fagan said their two goals would be controlling property tax increases and maintaining services. However, he said staying on the path the counties are currently on, it will be difficult for them to keep services intact and tax increases down.
“Given the unsustainable path we are currently on, we know services are going to be cut,” Fagan said. “The only way to hold the line on our property taxes is to cut services.”
Yates County Legislator Tim Dennis said Yates has few non-mandated services left the county has options over, citing the highway department and sheriff’s office as areas of significant money the county can still affect. He said both counties are so similar and so lean, the only way they can get into significant cost savings or efficiencies is where their “big money” is.