County’s Shared Services Campaign Unlikely to Yield Significant Savings in Rivertowns
by Barrett Seaman –
With ambitious spending plans, an expensive recent union contract agreement and an electorate living with the highest property taxes in the country, Westchester County Executive George Latimer is highly motivated to find savings wherever he can. Given his priorities, his best hope is the Updated Shared Services and Taxpayer Savings Plan, a campaign to save money by sharing or consolidating services and eliminating duplication at every level of government in the county.
The program, which is encouraged by a state pledge to match documented savings, was available to Latimer’s predecessor, Rob Astorino. But Astorino managed to find only $2.3 million in savings. A preliminary study by the new administration concluded that the county’s 45 local governmental entities had the potential to reduce overall spending by $27 million, a number that, if documented, would bring a matching amount from Albany.
Last month, in a unanimous vote, municipal leaders from across the county voted to approve the plan and go to work finding ways to save. Officials in the villages of Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown and Irvington all endorse the concept, but interviews with village administrators indicate that the rivertowns have relatively modest aspirations when it comes to cutting costs through sharing.
Examples cited by the county study included joint purchases of goods and services like road salt, IT support and insurance. Expensive equipment such as wood chippers or street sweepers could be shared. Larger savings could be achieved if municipalities were to merge police, fire or pubic works departments. Mt. Kisco ceded its policing to the county in 2015, resulting in a $2.4 million savings that year. Port Chester and Larchmont have since agreed to share library services.
Part of the reason for lower expectation in the rivertowns is that the villages are already sharing services. Tarrytown Village Administrator Rich Slingerland noted that his village already participates in a consortium to purchase diesel fuel for municipal vehicles and road salt. Sleepy Hollow Administrator Anthony Giaccio pointed to an existing arrangement among seven villages to share a “pothole killer” vehicle that cleans out potholes, lays down an adhesive and finishes the job with an aggregate that is more durable than the tar-based concoction traditionally used. “We have a Village Officials Committee with Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow and Ardsley that regularly reviews proposals for sharing,” he added. “We’ve been doing this for many years.”
Slingerland cited an existing arrangement whereby his village shares water treatment plants with Sleepy Hollow and Briarcliff. “If we go to one plant instead of three,” he said, “over time we can reduce capital costs.”
One of the areas cited for potential savings was tax assessment and collection. Yet both Irvington and Tarrytown have already shifted responsibility for property assessment to the Town of Greenburgh. Officials are concerned that further consolidation of the assessment process at the county level would prove bureaucratically cumbersome.
“Some proposals had no or limited applicability while others will be quite useful,” said Irvington Administrator Larry Schopfer. “The plan mostly offered proposals that center around the county (i.e., the county coordinating this or the county doing that),” he observed. “We will certainly consider taking advantage of some of those ‘County Do’ proposals once they’re done.”
Of the categories proposed by the county, Schopfer sees promise in the creation of a “Shared Services Portal,” a county website that would be a clearinghouse where villages can shop for services and equipment. Emily Saltzman, the county’s Deputy Director of Operations, calls it “a combination of eBay and Airbnb.”
The greatest potential savings would come from the merger of departments, like police, fire and EMT. Previous attempts to consolidate any of these have run up against community or union opposition. “Local control,” noted Giaccio, “remains an obstacle.”
Latimer’s Shared Services initiative does not require participation by the county’s school districts, though Emily Saltzman said some have volunteered to participate. School costs are the elephant in the room for Westchester homeowners, as they generate roughly two-thirds of property taxes