Montgomery County competing for $20M grant

FONDA — Montgomery County has been chosen as one of six local governments in New York state set to compete for a $20 million state grant to promote government consolidation, shared services and efficiency.

The state program, called the Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition, will give $50,000 to each of the six selected local governments — Montgomery County, Chautauqua County, Madison County, Otsego County, Ulster County and the town of Brookhaven — and a $20 million prize to the government that submits the “most innovative plan for consolidation, dissolution, service-sharing and other cost-saving measures,” according to a news release from New York state.

Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said he first became aware of the state contest in January, which meant his county had to have quick turnaround to get local governments to support the application and file a preliminary efficiency plan strong enough to be considered for the $20 million prize. He said he met with local government officials in the County Annex building Jan. 6.

“I said we need to get some of the local government officials in a room and see what the response is and we’ll take it from there and let that response determine if we put in an application, and I was somewhat surprised by the level of support and enthusiasm in the room for further exploring shared services and even potentially some consolidations,” Ossenfort said.

“We worked up an initial phase of a draft plan and decided to submit it. I did not want it to be something that at the county level was pushed down to the local governments. I really wanted to see if there was a willingness on the local level — and there was — and that’s the reason we decided to push forward.”

Local government leaders from all 21 municipalities in Montgomery County, including the city of Amsterdam and the county’s towns and villages, signed onto a plan proposing county-wide restructuring of services.

The widespread support for a restructuring plan in Montgomery County was highlighted in the state’s news release announcing the six finalist governments.

Fulton’s approach

Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead said his county elected not to apply for the Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition because there was such a short turnaround time for applying.

Stead said members of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors have in the past questioned the methodology of “winner-take-all” competitions for state funding promoted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, some calling it a form of “Hunger Games” that penalize poorer areas like Fulton County.

“It just doesn’t seem like the process is [often] a fair one, so I don’t know that the Board took [this issue] up directly, but we just didn’t put together an application, like many other municipalities,” Stead said.

“The Board of Supervisors have in the past expressed their frustration with this competition approach, where it’s this winner-take-all. I mean, $20 million for one jurisdiction, my personal opinion is if they gave out 40 half-million dollar success stories around the upstate region I think would do a tremendous amount more for getting more municipalities interested in participating, but also provide a wider, much broader impact in terms of cutting costs and consolidating.

“It’s very, very difficult to put together these large proposals when the odds are sort of like winning the lottery.”

$50K guarantee

Ossenfort said he’s happy his county is at least getting $50,000, which he hopes to use to hire a consulting firm that could suggest additional ways the municipalities in Montgomery County can save money by creating efficiencies.

“To be one of the six finalists, really there are no losers because we’re getting at least $50,000 to build upon the local government efficiency programs we had to do previously,” he said.

New York state required municipalities in 2015 to file government efficiency plans to the state, showing ways to cut costs, as part of the requirements for residents to be eligible for New York state’s Property Tax Freeze Credit rebate checks, which paid taxpayers back for any increase in property taxes for 2015 and 2016.

Ossenfort said the efficiency plan submitted for the Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition built off of the efficiency plans created for the Property Tax Freeze Credit. He said some of the efficiencies in the plan submitted include ideas like creating one government office for a town and its village or villages to share.

“What I want to look at is the entire western portion of the county. You have the two villages of Canajoharie and Palatine, that are separated by [the Mohawk] River. You have the villages of Nelliston and Fort Plain that are separated by the river. They all provide very similar services. So, we’re going to be looking at everything, the towns may not consolidate, but we could have a more robust shared services policy,” Ossenfort said.

“For public safety we have a number of police forces in the county, could we have a better situation there? Also, we could look at county-wide assessment, county-wide code enforcement, these are things we are going to look at. What I see as the future of local government, if we’re looking to be more efficient, is I see a consolidation of professional services at the county level and a decentralization of physical services at the local level.

“So, for example, a town is going to know their highways, and roads and bridges better than the county will known them and I think having local people on local roads makes a lot of sense. That’s a general approach that we are looking at and the nice thing about having these extra funds is we’ll be able to dig into some of the options with a lot more detail.”

Ossenfort said Montgomery County has until June to submit its final efficiency plan and he expects his county will be creating a Request for Proposals for a vendor to help them with the plan soon. He said he believes New York state will choose the $20 million winner by September.

By Chad Fleck

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