April 10, 2008
Study looks at options for C’ville, city merger
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
The intersection of Routes 281 and 222. The state on Tuesday released a study on merger options for Cortlandville and Cortland.
CORTLAND — As the county celebrated its bicentennial Tuesday, the state released a study on merger options for the town of Cortlandville and city of Cortland.
It examines the benefits and challenges the two municipalities would face by sharing services or completely consolidating to save money.
While the city would stand to gain immensely by merging, Cortlandville officials take a more pessimistic view.
“I wasn’t a part of this so I don’t know an awful lot,” said Town Board member and Deputy Supervisor Ted Testa. “But I do know the department heads were interviewed and felt negatively about it.”
The New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness commissioned the study in November. Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer formed the commission in April 2007 to specifically look at shared services, consolidation and other local efficiency issues for municipalities across the state.
The study, which was conducted by the Center for Governmental Research in Rochester, focuses on identifying specific ways the local governments could reduce costs and improve services without increasing costs.
Cortland and Cortlandville are one of three groups of cities and towns to be examined by the CGR. The other two were Norwich and Oneonta. The study of all three cities and towns cost approximately $50,000.
Without making any recommendations, the study of Cortland and Cortlandville thoroughly examines three merger options, their benefits and challenges:
* sharing and/or consolidating services;
* dissolving the town into the city of Cortland; and
* dissolving the city into the town of Cortlandville.
The study reports the primary areas for consolidation or shared services are fire protection, law enforcement, public works and sanitation.
“The city and town districts have a mix of resources. Consolidation of services would allow for both resources and staff to be streamlined over the entire community thereby providing better service to all,” the study says.
However, consolidating services, or even sharing them, could be challenging with the major differences between the city and the town. For example, the town uses the services of the county Sheriff’s Department for police protection and has a volunteer fire district residents pay for in taxes.
Cortlandville pays more than $2,000 for the county’s police service and taxpayers pay more than $730,000 for fire protection.
The city has a full-time city police department with approximately 40 police officers, including five sergeants and two lieutenants, as well as a paid, unionized fire department with 36 career firefighters and 38 volunteers, 10 of which are qualified for interior structure fires.
The city pays approximately $3.5 million for the city police department and more than $2.3 million for the city fire department.
The Cortlandville Fire Department is not interested in any kind of merger with the city, said Cortlandville Fire Chief Wayne Friedman.
“There would be no financial benefit to the fire district,” he said. “Currently we operate as a fire district and have the ability to tax and raise taxes. It would take a lot of logistical work to do this (merger). It’s not fair for Cortlandville taxpayers to bail out the city in their financial woes.”
Cortlandville Highway Superintendent Carl Bush also said consolidating the town and city’s departments of public works would not benefit Cortlandville residents.
“It takes so much equipment and manpower to provide a service. The only way I could see a consolidation working is if people are willing to have less service,” he said. “I’m sure some things could be consolidated, but for any type of money-saving study, people would have to accept less service.”
New residential developments, industries and a proposed business park are emerging in Cortlandville, leaving town officials looking for ways to equip new residents and businesses with water, sewer and other services.
While Cortlandville continues its expansion, the city is looking to renovate its housing stock, 60 percent of which was built before the 1930s, attract business and find new ways to get out of its daunting fiscal crisis.
Mayor Tom Gallagher said town and city officials would be looking at how each can continue to share services in a greater capacity.
“I think we ought to take small steps to come up with a plan for both the town and city that will work to save taxpayers money,” he said. “There are definitely some possible things we can do in cooperation with the town; some things we are doing right now.”
Currently the city and the town are working together on the Starr Road park project, flooding issues, as well as extending a water line to the Polkville area.
“This is going to be a tedious task to figure out how we can make this work,” Gallagher added, referring to determining other services the town and city can share.
Gallagher said because of the police department and differences in the fire protection, a complete merger of the city and town would not work.
Cortland would become the largest city in the state with a landmass of 55 square miles if it absorbed Cortlandville and the village of McGraw.
The study estimates total savings at approximately $570,000 in personnel costs per year plus benefits if the city were to expand and dissolve the town. Consolidation also would equalize assessments and tax rates, the study notes.
The complete merger would help the city with its tax base. Currently 48 percent of city properties are tax-exempt.
The city of Cortland, with a population of nearly 18,500, is surrounded by Cortlandville, with a population of nearly 8,000, with nowhere to expand.
According to the study, the population of the larger community has stayed fairly steady over the last 10 years, with a common trend of people moving out of the city into the suburbs of Cortlandville where the taxes are lower and there is more land available.
The study concludes that a full consolidation of municipalities would require creative solutions to overcome the challenges of outdated borders, imbedded procedures, legal constraints and historical differences.
But with the current state of the city’s finances, the study states, “If a consolidation does not occur, it is not clear how the city of Cortland will continue to provide services it its residents.”
However, there are challenges with combining unionized and nonunionized professionals, transferring employees and most importantly, getting the agreement from town residents, who are likely to see consolidation as “taking on the city’s problems.”
Town residents may be more in favor of expanding the town to include the city, though.
In this option, the town would have to consider taking on the costs of the city police department, reconfiguring fire protection and ensuring all services that were provided to the city would be provided in the expanded town.
Providing these services would most likely result in increased costs for the current residents, the study says.
The new entity would have more revenue to disperse over the entire community, though.
Cortlandville has a surplus fund balance of $5.3 million, while the city has no surplus funds.
Although both the city and town officials seem to be against a complete consolidation, the study makes it clear that something must be done because of the city’s financial crisis and the town’s rapid expansion, both commercial and residential.
Consolidation would return boundaries to where they were in 1900
Once a part of Cortlandville, which was established in 1829 after splitting from Homer, the city first began as a village, incorporated in 1853.
On March 16, 1900, Gov. Theodore Roosevelt signed Chapter 160, Laws of 1900 — the city charter. On that day, the city of Cortland was born, splitting from Cortlandville with a population of 10,000 people and becoming the 41st city in the state.
After 108 years as separate entities, the state has investigated how feasible and effective it would be to combine the city and the town in some capacity.
Cortland County was established April 8, 1808, splitting from Onondaga County due to an increasing population and economic development, as well as the hardship of traveling to the county seat in Syracuse.
Four townships that were formed in Onondaga County were included in Cortland County — Homer, Virgil, Cincinnatus and Solon.
Homer was established in 1791, Solon in 1798 and both Cincinnatus and Virgil were founded in 1804.
The towns of Preble and Truxton were also founded in 1808, the same year Cortland became a county.
From there, the county flourished, later establishing new towns including Scott in 1815, Marathon, Freetown and Willet three years later, Lapeer and Harford in 1845, Taylor in 1849, Cuyler in 1858 and the village of McGraw, which was incorporated in 1869.
The boundaries of Cortland County have remained unchanged since its creation.
Historically Cortland County has been a rural and agricultural community, with industry in and around the city of Cortland. Companies such as Brockway Trucks, Smith Corona and Rubbermaid have come and gone.
However, major commercialization is emerging, mostly in Cortlandville, while the city continues to financially struggle with nowhere to expand and a lack of new development.
One solution to both the town’s and city’s challenges is the concept of shared services or just going back to the boundaries of 1830s when the town and city were one entity.
— Aimee Milks
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