Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Make Mine A Dissolution, On Rye

Rye Town Supervisor Leads Charge to Dissolve

When one hears about campaigns to dissolve municipal entities -- whether fire districts, water districts, or entire townships -- rarely are the proponents of such initiatives the very public officials who run (and benefit from) the place.

Come now the Town of Rye, NY, where no one less than the Supervisor himself, Joe Carvin, is leading the charge to, in effect, cut off his own nose despite his face. [Actually, Mr. Carvin waives the $17,000 salary offered by the Town.]

Granted, the Town of Rye, with an annual budget of $3.6 million, doesn't provide much in the way of services, same being provided by the villages that lay within its borders, or by the encompassing County of Westchester. Still, to even entertain the notion of eliminating an existing layer of government -- particularly one that does little more than collect taxes -- is appealing. That the wheels are being put in motion by the Town Supervisor himself is, to say the least, refreshing, if not extraordinary.

Now, dissolving the Town of Rye is not likely to save all that much in dollars and cents. Indeed, the Town itself is spending $50,000 in State grant money to study whether it should do itself in. [We're quite good at "studying" here in New York. "Doing," not so much...]

That said, efficiencies are not always readily visible on the balance sheet. Sometimes, there's that proverbial "read between the lines" in terms of eliminating duplication of effort, streamlining operations, and having one less layer of bureaucracy to deal with in picking up garbage, removing snow, fixing streets, and so on.

Of course, we'd be delusional to so much as think that any Supervisor, Mayor, Commissioner or Trustee here on Long Island would be so bold as to follow Rye Town's Carvin down the road to dissolution. Then again, with dwindling resources, changing demographics, and the migration of both young and old from our shores, economy may dictate where reason so refuses.

In an era when doing more with less -- or even less with less -- has become the calling card of fiscal conservatives, and doing without (as in, do we really need sanitation services 6 days per week?) has become the new normal, maybe, just maybe, more of us -- including a local official or two -- will give some serious thought to dissolving a couple of taxing districts (or at least to consolidating a few), and calling for lower (not merely capped) property taxes in the morning!
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From The Wall Street Journal:

Pondering the Why for Rye

RYE, N.Y.—Town Supervisor Joe Carvin wants to issue his own pink slip.

He's leading a charge to dissolve the Town of Rye, the 350-year-old municipality he's headed for three years. The town is the government version of a holding company, serving as a shell for the Westchester County villages of Port Chester and Rye Brook, and Mamaroneck's Rye Neck section.

Despite its $3.6 million budget, the Town of Rye doesn't provide any sanitation, health or police services; they are provided by the other municipalities and by Westchester County.

The town collects taxes, conducts property assessments and maintains two parks, a number of bridges and a court. It employs 18 people, and paid out close to $2 million in salaries and benefits last year. Mr. Carvin, a hedge-fund manager at Altima Partners in New York City, has declined the $17,000 salary his predecessor received.

"The question is: What exactly does the town of Rye do?" said Gary Zuckerman, a former Rye Brook village trustee.

This spring, the municipalities are using a $50,000 state grant to study the idea of doing away with the town.

The move comes amid a state-wide push to consolidate more than 4,000 local municipalities in an effort to pare away layers of bureaucracy that drive up costs and taxes.

The problem is particularly acute in Westchester, Rockland and Nassau counties, all among the top 10 counties with the highest property taxes in the U.S., according to an analysis of Census data by the Tax Foundation.

In 2009, then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo proposed since-enacted legislation that allows citizens to launch a dissolution process without government approval—if they can get 10% of an area's registered voters to sign a petition. And last year the state gave $1.3 million to local governments to study municipal dissolutions and consolidations.

The push has yet to yield many consolidations. Last year's budget halved the state's $11.5 million appropriation to fund efficiency grants, and next year's budget is likely to keep the funding flat at $5 million. While at least a dozen municipalities have taken steps toward dissolution, only 38 villages have actually dissolved since 1920, according to a state report.

Last March, the village of Perrysburg in upstate New York voted to dissolve the village into the town. With 408 residents and a $290,000 annual budget, the village's population declined by 5% and the tax base was eroding. New York's Department of State estimates $125,000 in annual cost savings.

Currently, more than 30 local governments are looking into dissolution.

Dissolving local entities isn't easy. Over the years, municipalities have taken on billions of dollars in debt that other local governments don't want to assume. What's more, leaders of municipalities that seem prime for dissolution often have no interest in volunteering their jobs for elimination.

Mr. Carvin took office three years ago with the idea of consolidating the myriad local governments. His ideal solution would be to merge everything into the City of Rye. It split away from the town in 1942, and provides police, fire and trash services. Unlike villages, it has the power to tax residents.

"We'd go from lots of levels of government to just one and reduce expenditures by 20%...but we couldn't get the political support behind that," Mr. Carvin says. So he turned to Plan B: garnering support for dissolving the Town of Rye.

The growth of the villages over the decades has left the Town of Rye performing a hodgepodge of functions. It budgeted about $7,500 to put on holiday celebrations, $18,000 to run elections, $131,000 for legal expenses and $3,500 for veteran flags. More than $230,000 is used to pay down the town's $4.6 million debt.

Mr. Zuckerman, an attorney who moved to Rye Brook more than 25 years ago, pays taxes to New York state, Westchester County, the Blind Brook school district, the Town of Rye and the Village of Rye Brook.

"If it sounds confusing, it's because it is," says Mr. Zuckerman, who has been studying local layers of government for more than a decade. "We need to study what governments should provide and at what costs."

Write to Shelly Banjo at

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