Shared Services Forum Tackles Tough Solutions to Tax Problems
Last Thursday, April 11th, school district business officials, municipal leaders, municipal officials, school board trustees and local constituents were all talking together. And sharing ideas. Before a packed audience, I moderated a forum that addressed sharing services between school districts, local governments and the state in order to cut costs. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, Westchester County Association Chairman Alfred DelBello, Putnam Northern Westchester District Superintendent Dr. James Langlois, and Cortlandt Town Supervisor Linda Puglisi joined me. Each highlighted their own involvement with shared services and discussed the potential for increasing the ability to allow for even more. At the state level we are also committed to sharing. Our recently passed budget includes $29.4 million, an increase of $5.4 million from last year’s budget, earmarked for state grants to underwrite shared services and consolidation.
Comptroller DiNapoli said that as a school board member on Long Island, he came to realize that any effort to share or consolidate services needed to be more of a bottom-up than a top-down approach that addressed real needs of local communities. He also cited distrust of government as something that works against consolidation and sharing. The Comptroller emphasized that “the time is now for a conversation on shared services,” particularly given our current fiscal challenges. He also offered his office and other state offices as the go-to place for expertise and a knowledge base to guide local governments on best practices to follow when working jointly across municipal lines.
Al DelBello, who sits on the Commission for Local Government Competitiveness and Efficiency, also mentioned the need for grass-roots efforts to effectively chip away at the layers of government that are duplicative. “Big business can’t remain competitive if Westchester County continues to be the first, second or third highest taxed county in the nation,” he said. Legislatures are not necessarily the place to start for sharing, he suggested, but local sharing can take place if historical barriers can be broken down. He commented that just because a level of government exists, doesn’t mean it has to exist for a service to be offered. “One computer in a county office could effectively assess the entire county,” stated DelBello, “…every place but government has used technology to be more productive using fewer resources. Some areas of government still require a more personalized approach, but many do not. The time is now to start consolidating back- office services across all government lines.”
DelBello pointed out that New York has more taxing districts than any other state. “We need to be bold and change state law and the constitution to truly and effectively change New York,” he claimed. Better utilization of BOCES might be one way to start, DelBello suggested. Adding a tier five for new public employees that would phase out early retirement was another suggestion.
Linda Puglisi focused her remarks on the importance of getting a groundswell of community support for any shared service that represents a significant change. For example, Cortlandt does not have its own police force, but relies on county and state police for law enforcement. Under Puglisi’s leadership, Cortlandt also passed a referendum to eliminate the elected highway superintendent and replace him/her with an appointed superintendent. She was also instrumental in building a water filtration plant, when the state mandated higher standards for water. To do this, she partnered with several neighboring communities, and she did something similar for recycling. When unfunded mandates come to her, she looks for communities to share. “To gain community support for such initiatives,” she said, “you need to run it almost like a campaign.”
Jim Langlois said the time was right for: “…the grand conversation to begin. We need to sit down with state legislators, and it is critical that powerful lobby groups be part of the conversation.” He also emphasized the need to take great care when analyzing how to streamline services related to schools. “We have the best school districts in the nation here. We want to be careful not to dismantle something so great.” Langlois cited research which showed that up to 3,000 students in one school district does help with efficiencies, but once the district grows beyond that, administrative additions need to be made. BOCES currently offers school district sharing for such back office services as printing, health insurance, contract negotiations, technology, legal services, investment pooling, and more. BOCES is also self-regulated. A service cannot be offered if fewer than two member school districts demand it. Transportation management, centralized maintenance, and energy were areas Langlois suggested BOCES’ role could grow into. He mentioned that BOCES in other regions do support services beyond school districts, which could be a direction for this BOCES to go as well.
Audience concerns focused on the need for a “clearinghouse” of sorts to help disseminate information about what kind of sharing exists already, what’s available, and how to proceed. DelBello offered up the possibility of the Commission on Local Government Competitiveness and Efficiency, after it releases its recommendations, to become that sort of clearinghouse. Puglisi suggested that to entice more sharing, incentives need to be offered. Some questioned the efficiency of BOCES, or if there were better deals available to taxpayers, even if they weren’t better deals for school districts. Westchester County government suggested they offer possibilities for pooling resources, especially with information services, public works services, and purchasing (through their finance department). Putnam County has already embarked on a study to look at sharing of assessment services among the municipalities in Putnam.
We are at a critical juncture, which I like to think of as an incredible opportunity. Together, I believe we can address our service needs, limit our costs, and increase the efficiency of local governments. At the end of the forum, I solicited suggestions from the audience in the form of a hand-out. I welcome additional input from constituents and public officials regarding sharing services and reducing costs, which you can send to me at email@example.com, or 2 Church Street, Ossining, NY 10562, or call my district office at (914) 941-1111.