The first thing that needs to be said with regards to Cobleskill’s evolving engagement with the issue of consolidation is that all bold and innovative ideas should be welcomed and explored enthusiastically. Maybe that even goes without saying. However, to anyone who has observed the process over the past several years this clearly has not been the case.
There has been talk and even some action on sharing services for a long time, but the process was given a major boost about three years ago when Mayor Sellers and Deputy Mayor Sandy MacKay applied for a grant to produce a study of the costs and benefits associated with various consolidation plans. The village won that grant and the product was a study by a Rochester-based group called the Center for Governmental Research. The CGR study outlined the various possibilities from outright dissolution to joining with the Town of Cobleskill and incorporating as a city. Despite the wide variety of possibilities outlined in this report, many of which offered benefits worthy of further consideration, a few members of the Board of Trustees, namely Mark Galasso, Mayor Sellers and now Robert LaPietra (strange political bedfellows to be sure) have been pushing relentlessly to dissolve the village while virtually ignoring all other possibilities.
It is tempting to offer cynical explanations as to why the Board is so singularly committed to dissolution. For much of the past five years the Town of Cobleskill has been eager to see commercial development along the village’s eastern boundary. In many cases, access to village infrastructure (water and sewer) has been crucial to making those projects happen.
Not surprisingly, the village has been hesitant to hand over access to its water and sewer services for projects that would divert shoppers away from Downtown Cobleskill and help to further erode the village’s tax base. The unintended result of this was that the village Board of Trustees had an unofficial veto power over suburban sprawl development in the town, a card they should very much want to play for a variety of good reasons. In 2008, Lowe’s backed out of its plans to build a store in the Town after a long and protracted effort to convince the village to extend services, an effort that arguably included open bribery of village officials.
Now that the membership of the Board of Trustees has changed to include a multi-millionaire developer, a slumlord who owns multiple local properties, and Mayor Sellers who is almost religiously committed to the idea of consolidation for consolidation’s sake, it makes sense that the pro-growth forces of Cobleskill would seize this opportunity to see the village, the last remaining check on rampant sprawl development, dissolved. Dissolution would have numerous implications but none as glaringly obvious as the fact that it would hand over control of the Village’s water and sewer infrastructure to the Cobleskill Town Board, a move that would open up the Route 7 and Mineral Springs corridors to intense commercial and residential development.
The real travesty in all of this is not that these forces have hi-jacked the process in an effort to grab the village’s resources, but that this has prevented a real conversation about the benefits of alternative plans for consolidation. Another village trustee, Sandy MacKay, has consistently raised the question of jointly incorporating with the town to form a city. Granted this is not a perfect option, as it would still mean that the village (notice use of lower case) would relinquish its control over water and sewer services. However, it would allow Cobleskill to take advantage of a variety of prerogatives that cities in New York state benefit from, including state-financed courts and an ability to both preempt up to 50% of county-levied sales taxes generated within its corporate boundaries and levy a separate sales tax, which could generate significant revenues without affecting county revenue streams.
It would also be possibly easier to devise a governance structure that limited the amount of power that residents of the village would give up in the process of consolidating with the town. For example, a ward system could be used to maintain the voices of village residents and insure that they are not drowned out by town voters in an at-large system.
I am not mentioning this option because I’m endorsing it, I just want to illustrate that there are alternatives to the dissolution scheme being offered up by Sellers, Galasso and LaPietra and that those alternatives deserve to be considered every bit as much as dissolution.
Mayor Sellers defended this scheme during the public comment section of a recent board meeting, claiming that it was not being “rammed through”. Clearly that was not the impression of a majority of those who spoke out at that meeting, nor is it the impression of this observer either. While I do not endorse any specific plan for consolidation, I encourage concerned village residents to attend more meetings and speak out against what they rightly perceive as a quick and dirty effort to place the question of dissolution on the ballot.
I also sincerely encourage concerned residents to watch this group of trustees very carefully, Mark Galasso and Bob LaPietra in particular. In large part, it is apathy that has led us to this point, especially with regard to LaPietra’s election last November.
However, that so many spoke out against their plans for consolidation bodes well for this coming election. I won’t get into endorsing specific candidates here, but it is obviously time for a change, and for voters to redeem themselves after last year’s fiasco in which they elected a man who is a confessed perjurer, a slumlord and a non-village resident to the Board of Trustees. I don’t know; it may be time to raise the bar, just a little.