Collaboration Consternation

Posted: August 24, 2011 in Consolidation, Economic Development
Tags: ,

“Consolidation” and “shared services” – seem to be two buzzwords that are being used a lot these days. All three mayoral candidates have expressed (in varying degrees of detail), their support for working with other municipalities to cut costs of services. The idea of  consolidating local governments gets mentioned a lot by some county supervisors, numerous Recorder editorials, and most recently is mentioned (somewhat obliquely) in an opinion piece in Monday’s Recorder by Fulton Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger, entitled “Plan a collaboration for a brighter future“.

I’ve always been supportive of the idea of shared services. If, for instance, it would cost less to pay the county to plow our roads than to maintain our own fleet, then by all means, let’s do it. So while I think that shared services and even consolidation in some cases could be good ideas, I’m starting to get a little concerned about the way this is being sold. It’s almost as if we are being asked to buy in to these ideas by faith, rather than by facts.

Swanger’s article, while well written and optimistic, contains some points which echo other ideas on consolidation and shared services that I’ve heard, but just don’t sit well with me. I’ll explain why.

In regards to regional economic growth, he gives the following chastisement:

“We must reduce barriers to development. We cannot afford to withhold water or sewer services. We cannot worry about which town or city will gain the most from development.”

Now Swanger is most likely talking about a problem that developed between the cities of Johnstown and Gloversville last year related to the development of a Walmart Supercenter. Making a long story short, Johnstown and Gloversville built a waste treatment plant together many years ago, and had an agreement that if either city wanted to extend their sewer lines past their boundaries, the other city had to approve it.  The Town of Johnstown needed a sewer line from Gloversville to move forward with the Walmart Supercenter project. The City of Johnstown, for whatever reason, didn’t want to go along. So Gloversville annexed that part of the land from the town and worked out a revenue sharing deal.  You can find articles with more details on the situation here.

So everything actually worked out just fine, the project recently broke ground and everyone (except maybe the City of Johnstown) is happy. To me, this shows that when a clear economic opportunity presents itself, localities will bend over backwards to cooperate and get things done. The City of Johnstown probably acted the way they did because they weren’t getting anything out of the deal or thought the supercenter might harm them economically.

This situation was certainly difficult and could have gone a lot smoother if there had been a more flexible agreement between the two cities. But how common is this type of arrangement where one city has actual veto power over another? Swanger goes on to say,

“Our growth cannot be constrained by what are, effectively, artificial boundaries. If we cannot collaborate across these manmade boundaries, perhaps it is time to remove them.”

I’m not 100% sure if he is literally talking about municipal boundaries here, or if the word “boundaries” is referring to certain laws that may inhibit cooperation.  But my sense is that he is indeed, talking about the latter.  So because of one special case where localities didn’t fully cooperate, this is grounds for abolishing a local government? That just seems a little extreme to me.

I also take exception to describing the current local boundaries as “artificial”. This term would better describe Africa or the Middle East, where colonial powers drew national boundaries, disregarding the traditional boundaries of various tribes or ethnic groups. To me, our current municipal boundaries are “organic”, accurately reflecting the communities that people built throughout our history. Now Swanger argues earlier in his article that these boundaries are less important because of our increased mobility, and I would agree with that. However, I would say that our local boundaries are no more artificial or man-made than our county, state or national borders.

What I see happening is that larger companies are not willing to build or expand inside city boundaries. Either there isn’t enough space or the taxes are too high. So they look to the towns for large spaces to develop on. But unfortunately they don’t have the water or sewer systems to accommodate them. So, the towns look to the cities, who have invested extensively in these systems, to extend out their lines.

So in order for these large projects to happen, there certainly has to be cooperation between the cities and towns. I tend to wonder if the idea of consolidation is simply an idea that gets mentioned in order to keep cities on their toes  (ie share your water and sewer or else!), or if this is indeed a serious, credible policy being pursued on the county level.

 Finally, Swanger offers this idea,

“No company thinks ‘I need to locate my business in Amsterdam,Johnstown, or Gloversville.’ They think, ‘In what region of the country will my business gain the best advantage?’”

Well, I can certainly believe this when it comes to large companies who can afford to locate anywhere they want. But what about, for instance, a small business located in Albany with roots in the region, but is struggling financially and needs to cut costs?  Why wouldn’t they consider moving to Amsterdam to take advantage of the low-cost commercial space that is available? With the proper marketing, I think that yes, some businesses might actually think they need to locate their business in Amsterdam, Johnstown or Gloversville. Statements like this, along with the numerous editorials from the Recorder admonishing the Mayor for pursuing city marketing, make me really wonder if this opposition exists simply because a successful growing economy in Amsterdam would be at odds with the vision for consolidation.

As the discussions on shared services and consolidation goes on, I think it is vitally important for citizens to ask the hard questions of our elected officials, both in the city and county government. We need to make sure that any decision to consolidate services or governments is based on facts that demonstrate true cost reduction and serve the best interests of everyone.

  1. Bill Wills says:

    Tim, the most important words in your blog on consolidation lie in your last sentence: “We need to make sure that any decision to consolidate services or governments is based on facts that demonstrate true cost reduction and serve the best interests of everyone.”

    Cost reductions is one thing. In the best interests of everyone is another.

    The problem is getting a reliable and trustworthy assessment/study of these facts i.e. your statement “Statements like this, along with the numerous editorials from the Recorder admonishing the Mayor for pursuing city marketing, make me really wonder if this opposition exists simply because a successful growing economy in Amsterdam would be at odds with the vision for consolidation.”

    • Tim Becker says:

      Getting a cost reduction is not the only thing that matters, is that what you are saying? If we get a service at a lower cost, but the service is inferior to what we had before, then that is not in everyone’s best interest, correct?

  2. robert purtell says:

    My thoughts are:
    1. Consolidation is a two way street, two parties first have to see the benifits, unless there exists major benifits to both parties, it probably is not going to happen. Then both parties would have to feel that the other did not do better than them, just human nature.

    2. Consolidation is not impitus for companies or business coming to an area, I would say cooperation of all parties is a better indicator of progressive behavior.

    3. I feel that any manufacturing or blue collar jobs come to a location because of government subsidies or influence. Then the companies look for an affordable and well trained workforce, with good work ethics. certainly the work force comes from a larger geographic area than 1 city or 1 county, Target warehouse is a great exmple.

    4. Then comes the outside forces, the chip fab plants 30 miles away and the service industries that support them will be clustered around them.

    5. I feel our community growth will come in the way of housing, a little at a time, no Luther forest, and unfortunately any tax burden because of that will be picked up by the residential component not by big industry. unfortunately it will happen outside ot the city boundries because of the availibility of land, not affected by the blight of the older city neighborhoods.

    6. For the development of residential, commercial or industrial sites, would best be served by municipal water and sewer, owned by the older municipalities. Amsterdam has by the way always had significant extra volume in their water and sewer plants and has upgraded them in the recent past.

    So with that said, I feel the the municipal services should be the key, as well as the developable land outside the City, How do you find the “win,win” situation between a city and an outlying town to make “consolidation” work? This should be the question.

    • Tim Becker says:

      Well reasoned thoughts, Rob. So what you are saying is that a good plan for cooperation between towns and cities is key, not necessarily consolidation. The model of large businesses in the towns, purchasing water and sewer services from the cities seems to be the most feasible.

      Interestingly, in Flippin’s latest post, he worries that this model will be “subsidizing suburbanization”, or that the town will benefit from this arrangement more than the cities.

      Do you think that given our current housing stock, Amsterdam stands to gain from this arrangement? Or do we need to make major changes in order to be competitive?

      • robert purtell says:

        Competitive?????? there is so much competition in the world today to stabilize local economies, That everybody is our competition, where do we draw the line on being happy and a good quality of life and growth? I am really not sure myself, There was a saying years ago, south Troy against the world, are we in a position to be “Montgomery County against the world” I am not sure we carry enough ammunition.

      • Tim Becker says:

        Maybe I should clarify a bit. For instance, say a supplier of Global Foundries sets up in the Town of Florida creating maybe 100 new jobs. The City of Amsterdam provides the sewer and water. Not all the new hires are local, maybe 30 or 40 new familes are now looking for homes in the area now. They are looking at the various towns, the city, maybe Rotterdam or Schenectady too. Now everyone has different tastes, some like rural living, others more suburban, and some like to live in cities. In this scenario, how does Amsterdam stack up? Of course we’ll benefit from the revenue from the sewer and water lines, but do we also stand to benefit from the influx of new families too? I’m wondering how we would fare in this type of situation. If we are low on ammo, how do we “load up” so to speak so that we are not simply “subsidizing suburbanization”.

  3. Bill Wills says:

    Yes Tim you are right on the mark. Also, if I may, I agree with Mr. Purtell’s comments and if Amsterdam’s old and unreusable housing stock can be replaced by middle class housing which will bring money and greater assessed values back into our community along with elevating the gross average income of our community which unfortunately reflects too much the lower class and not enough of the middle and upper class. A successful community/city has a good balance of lower, middle, and higher income families.

  4. Ann M. Thane says:

    “…if Amsterdam’s old and unreusable housing stock can be replaced by middle class housing…”

    Enough of this run-on sentence.

    Is “unreusable” a word?

    Um, exactly where are you planning to do this? How much will it cost? What will inspire a developer to put housing in a neighborhood that is already struggling, and what would you do to attract them here, along with the monied constituency you envision, when you don’t value marketing enough to allocate more than $12,000 for that purpose a year? What do you expect of the residents that will be displaced in this situation, that perhaps love and take pride in their homes despite their apparent lack of means? How will you help them? What do you think of their dreams and aspirations for their families and neighborhoods? Do you recognize the value of the character of turn-of-the-century architecture and the importance historic preservation plays in the revitalization of other communities around the world?

    Community revitalization happens over time and requires multifaceted approaches, cooperation between governmental agencies, multiple funding sources, extensive planning and community input. It requires an even temperament and diplomacy. There is no problem with sharing services and costs with other municipalities if we all benefit in the end.

    I’ve found that the real difficulty is getting the various players, especially elected officials, to actually put in the effort and time to understand problems, develop strategies and commit resources to move our community forward. It is much easier to spout off snappy rhetoric that is easily digestible than to perform. This is especially hard to stomach during the election cycle. What is the result of cutting a budget by 1% without any analysis of costs, revenues or impact on services? Where is your aldermen when we have neighborhood association meetings or community clean-ups? I presented a long list of shared service opportunities to the aldermen and county supervisors two years ago and again a few weeks ago. Where are all of the shared service champions that have touted this phrase like the marching band at a parade? Aren’t they interested? Why haven’t they responded?

    Where’s the beef?

    My record shows that I am an organized individual that has a vision for this community, that sets goals and doggedly pursues them until they are completed. We have successfully collaborated with the outlying towns to promote economic development through water agreements and industrial expansions. We’ve made stark progress in three years on all fronts, but I agree with Bob, this will take time. Systematic planning and action are the only ways we’re going to create a community that our children will be proud to call home.

  5. Ann M. Thane says:

    My apologies. This habit comes from a grandmother that used send letters I had written back to me with corrections in red pen. She taught me to love reading and writing, as well as a complete appreciation of the English language. I think it’s important for us, especially those in public service, to be able to communicate our ideas properly, as we have such a rich, grammatical heritage

  6. Communication is essential for a public servant in a leadership position. Communication breaks down when we loose the ability to listen. It is not about the grammer we use but how we exchange ideas, respecting the opinions of others although we may disagree. Communication breaks down when we loose the ability to listen or choose not to respond.

    We all have something of value to offer, a good leader is always mindful of the fact and respects the same.

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