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Editorials

Downsizing is Wrongsizing!
By Daniel T. Warren
Apr 30, 2009, 22:07
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First we must be clear what this proposition is and is not about. This proposition is not about consolidating with, or having the town annexed by, a bordering municipality. Annexation can only be initiated by citizen petition and consolidation can be initiated either by citizen petition or a resolution of the town board. The process for annexation or consolidation is unchanged whether this measure passes or fails. The proponents of this measure could have petitioned to put one or more of those questions on the ballot but did not. This vote is not about whether or not you approve of the performance of the two people who currently hold the positions that are proposed to be eliminated. Questions as to their performance or lack thereof are to be decided when they are up for election. This is a distinct and different question of whether or not these positions should exist. This vote is solely about reducing the town board from 5 to 3. This vote will not lead to either annexation or consolidation.

As detailed below reducing the number of town board members will have an insignificant, if any, effect on the amount of taxes we pay and to the extent that it may the costs of the downsizing far outweigh any monetary savings. Reform at all levels is needed this is not reform. We as a community and as citizens should have an open discussion and debate on how we should be governed. This discussion and debate should be had within the context of a state constitutional convention.

Proponents of this measure assert that downsizing will result in 10 benefits. Below is each claimed benefit asserted and why it is not a benefit of downsizing:

* Decrease property taxes on families and businesses.

Although one can diminish the size of the town board we have no greater control over the budget and their salaries as before. Therefore we have no control on whether or not the new smaller town board will increase the salaries for the remaining board members and/or hiring additional administrative staff to make up for the loss of the board members that were eliminated.

However, even assuming that it remains unchanged the projected savings would be minimal. As of the 2000 census, there were 45,920 people and 12,737 families residing in the town. The salary for a town board member is $22,420.00. Some proponents for downsizing in West Seneca assert that when all the benefits and taxes are combined this will result in a $60,000.00 per year savings.

As it stands now the budget for 2009 calls for $11,879,802 to be raised by property taxes for the general fund only. The town has a taxable valuation of $1,131,264,449 which means a tax rate of $10.50135 per thousand of assessed value. If reduced by $60,000 it would result in a tax rate of $10.44831. Based on the 2000 census information the average family consists of 3.6 people. Assuming they all live in $100,000 homes this would result in an annual reduction of property tax of $5.30 or $1.47 per person.

There are also serious questions on how this will, if at all, affect the Town’s bond rating and ability to borrow in the future. Beginning in 2008 Moody's began recalibrating its US Municipal Bond Ratings to the company's Global Rating Scale. In November 2008 two of West Seneca's bond issues were downgraded (The bonds with a sale date of November 30, 2006 and July 2, 1998). In December 2008 Moody's issued a special comment entitled "Impact of the Credit Crisis and Recession on Local Governments" it stated in that comment that "in the past, municipalities with strong management teams, diverse revenue sources, predictable borrowing costs and sound liquidity and reserves are expected to fare better than those without these advantages. Generally speaking, the willingness of a local government's leadership to make the adjustments necessary to adapt will be a key factor in maintaining that government's credit rating. However, a more prolonged, deep downturn would significantly increase the fiscal challenges that municipalities will face and likely lead to greater downward rating pressure." It is clear that in the future we need a strong town board that is willing to make the difficult choices for the people of West Seneca. Reducing the Town Board and at the same time depriving the voters of an opportunity to choose between keeping up to two veteran board members or to put in up to two new members on the town board this November will not provide us with this.

* Increase citizens’ voice in their community.

With a smaller legislative body where each representative represents more citizens your voice will be heard less not more. This is just like class size if you are in a class of 30 your teacher has more time to pay attention to your needs than if you are in a class of 300. If we really want to increase our voice in the governance of our community we need to become more active in our political parties, communicate our concerns to our representatives and attend town board and other public meetings.

* Reduce the decibel level of politicians’ endless squabbling.

Our forefathers were concerned that a strong executive branch would lead to the same abuses and excesses of the monarchy we were separating from and therefore preferred a strong legislative branch that is controlled by the people. We should not reduce our voice in town governance. Our founding fathers believed that open debate and discussion, even if vitriolic, rancorous and loud, be had in forming our public policy. It is through this loud and rancorous discussion and debate that we develop our public policy through each side conceding certain points and offering compromise and changes in one's position on any given issue. Just like with children it is better to have our elected officials loud and watched then quiet and out of sight.

* Expand funds for local services.

This is nothing more than a restatement of the claimed benefit of reducing property taxes which as stated above, if it exists, is insignificant and this is also a tacit acknowledgement that any savings obtained will not flow to the taxpayer but to fund different expenditures.


* Return town boards to their original size.

This is simply not a benefit, although in some instances it will be an effect of downsizing. The Town of West Seneca has been governed by four board members and a supervisor since it’s founding in 1851 when it had a population of just over 2,000.

* Create transparency, and change meetings from lectures to conversations.

Reducing the size of the town board will decrease transparency and not increase it and subject us to minority rule rather than majority rule. There are a number of actions that a Town Board takes that requires a super-majority vote. For example a request for re-zoning where a protest is filed by the neighbors bordering the property to be re-zoned must be approved by three-fourths of the Town Board. If the Town Board is reduced from five to three members then in order to approve those measures the vote would then have to be unanimous. By reducing the number of councilmen to three will also increase the potential that a board member feeling disenfranchised would withhold their vote on an issue that requires a unanimous vote until certain items they desire to be passed are passed first, this would not be majority rule, but minority rule.

Another issue comes up when a board member is absent from a meeting for whatever reason or is disqualified from voting on a measure due to a conflict of interest. In this case there would only be two members voting. In this case all the items would require a unanimous vote in order to pass because a tie vote would result in a failure of the item to pass.

Another issue is related to the Open Meetings Law. The Open Meetings Law requires notice to the public and that the public be allowed to attend any meeting where a quorum meets to discuss public business. If the board is reduced to three a quorum will consist of any two members. This will actually serve to open most decisions made by the town board subject to challenges by parties who may differ with the various decisions on zoning changes, special use permits, etc. in an effort to overturn them. On the other hand, it may also hinder the permissible discussions among board-members.

Lastly there is absolutely no correlation between the size of a town board and whether it engages in a conversation with its citizens or lectures to them. This is a function of who is in office and not whether or not that office exists. In order to effect any change in this regard it is we the people that need to determine this by voting in the representatives that will treat us the way we want to be treated.

* Provide the necessary first step in reforming state government.

This simply is not a necessary first step in reforming state government. There is simply nothing the town does that will have any impact on state government. The necessary first step in reforming state government is voting yes if presented with the question of whether or not to convene a state constitutional convention. The next time we are constitutionally required to be presented with this question is in 2017. We should be calling on our state representatives in the Assembly and Senate to put this question to the voters sooner!

* Align local government with institutions (hospitals, places of worship, companies) that have consolidated to adapt to population loss.

As pointed out above unlike the hospitals, churches and companies the town board did not increase in size due to the population boom of the later half of the 20th century. Therefore it is already at the pre-boom level that these institutions are trying to get back to.

* Revive the role of public referendum in New York State.

The proponents of this measure have demonstrated that it is alive and well, just not frequently exercised. Voting for or against the downsizing of the town board will have little or no effect on the role of public referendums in New York. The role of public referendums in New York State is limited. There are a number of things our legislative bodies do that are subject to a permissive referendum. In order to get to vote on these issues there must be a promptly filed petition signed by a certain number of voters. Voting on something just for the sake of voting is not productive and therefore a certain number of citizens must disagree with the legislative act that is subject to permissive referendum to act to put it to a vote.

If we as citizens would like to secure the right to have referendum on petition as those citizens of approximately 21 other states including California and Arizona then we must secure this right to ourselves in our State Constitution like they have. To do this we must either get our state legislature to propose amending the state constitution in this manner or obtain it for ourselves through a state constitutional convention.

* Restore our belief that we can change.

We can change, however in order to change we must be participants in our political process. We as citizens have not been active participants, but armchair quarterbacks criticizing the works of others while not taking part in deciding our own destinies. In order to effect change, we must change and become more active.

Some supporting this downsizing effort recognize the lack of a cause and effect on the major issues that face us and admit that this is at best a purely symbolic gesture that may lead to more change. However we have had this type of symbolism in the past. The Erie County Legislature has been reduced twice in the last few decades to bring it down from 21 to 15 members and we are discussing reducing it to 9 members. There are vast differences between reducing the number of county legislators and town board members since each legislator has their own district office and staff where town board members do not, but what change did this symbolism get us?

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