VOL & TOM Study Police, Fire & DPW With Eye to Sharing

Combining Departments is One Possibility

by Judy Silberstein

(July 24, 2008) Local police, fire, highway and public works departments will undergo evaluations in the next few months in a search for potential cost savings, according to a joint press release from Town of Mamaroneck Supervisor Valerie O’Keeffe and Village of Larchmont Mayor Liz Feld on July 17. The two municipalities already share a library and sanitation district, and (with Mamaroneck Village) operate a joint cable board of control and ambulance district. Now, they "will evaluate whether there are further opportunities to reduce costs and improve services by combining our other major departments."

The studies are prompted by recent New York State reports from New York State commissions on Local Government Efficiency & Competitiveness, headed by Stan Lundine, and Property Tax Relief, headed by Tom Suozzi. The efforts are also bolstered by the possibility of receiving financial incentives from New York's Shared Municipal Services Grant program.

The announcement also follows Larchmont Trustee Jim Millstein’s comment at the June 12 board meeting that he would be examining for a second year the financial ramifications of a Mamaroneck-Larchmont consolidation of services. (See: Trustee Studying Consolidation.) His comment generated extensive media attention, including a front page story and pro-consolidation editorial in the Journal News. The editorial, in turn, prompted a reiterated call from former Larchmont Trustee Ned Benton* to consolidate the Mamaroneck and Larchmont fire departments.

Independent Reviews May - Perhaps - Lead to Sharing

Supervisor O’Keeffe and Mayor Feld said they would each conduct independent reviews of their operations. “Larchmont will do its study; we will do ours and we will get together - I hope within six weeks - to share the findings of our respective municipalities,” said Supervisor O’Keeffe. The focus will be on the departments with the most personnel and, hence, the greatest costs: fire, police and highway (Mamaroneck Town’s term) or public works (Larchmont Village’s term).

Asked about motivation for the study, Supervisor O’Keeffe said, “We’re always trying to save money,” but added that the issue is less acute for the Town than for the Village. “The Town is a bigger municipality – villages are smaller. When you do long term financial planning, the question throughout the state is: Are villages going to have enough money to fund all their existing departments going into the 21st century?”

“If working together will create savings for both the Village and the Town, it will be a highly productive path to pursue,” said the supervisor. However, she stressed that “this is gathering information – we’re not jumping the gun and coming to a conclusion.”

In the past, even an exploration of combining departments – particularly fire or police – would have been politically explosive. What has changed? Supervisor O’Keeffe said, “We’re in a new era – from the governors’ office right on down to us. New York taxes are driving people out of our state.”

Mayor Feld explained that the Larchmont study will involve “sitting down with the department heads and learning how they’re running their businesses.” This will go beyond the functional operation and will include purchasing, procurement and other administrative processes. “First we have to look at how we’re running our own businesses,” she said, “then we can compare and see if we can identify some cost savings by doing things together” with the Town.

Joint purchasing is one area for possible cost savings, she said. Larchmont will be buying asphalt with New Rochelle this year, she noted. “That’s where we saw the biggest bang for the buck.“

Mayor Feld also stressed the incremental nature of the current initiative. “We have to take this one step at a time,” she said. “I’m not talking about consolidation right now. I’m talking about doing the homework and seeing where it takes us.”

Obstacles to Municipal Sharing

Despite the current climate that favors collaboration and cost-sharing, inter-municipal ventures continue to be complicated by logistical or political hurdles. Larchmont’s plan to share engineering services with New Rochelle have been held up for more than a year because of problems with liability insurance.

Mamaroneck Town has been striving for months, so far unsuccessfully, to eliminate the practice of maintaining two separate but mostly duplicative assessment rolls for Larchmont Village properties, which appear on both the Mamaroneck Town and the Larchmont Village rolls. Supervisor O’Keeffe is hopeful that a new proposal crafted by Town Attorney William Maker will prove acceptable to the Larchmont Village Board, which is concerned about protecting its financial interests during the tax certiorari process. On Thursday, July 24, Mayor Feld said, “We have not formally agreed to it, but we have the pieces in place to move ahead.” Supervisor O’Keeffe was similarly optimistic: “I’m anticipating that the Village of Larchmont and Town of Mamaroneck will have one roll,” she said.

In other areas, however, collaboration has grown even more difficult.

Citing a need for greater administrative support, Larchmont Village this year ended its decades-long practice of sharing a comptroller/treasurer with Mamaroneck Town. Denis Brucciani, formerly half-time in each municipality, now works full-time in Larchmont. (See: VOL Expands Treasurer's Job to Full-Time.) Mamaroneck Town hired Anthony Siligato to serve both as comptroller and information technology director. (See: Mamaroneck Town Hires New Comptroller.)

A proposal for merging Larchmont’s Fire Department into an expanded Town of Mamaroneck’s Fire District got caught up last year in the political battle over the hiring of a paid chief in Larchmont. (See: Mayor, Fire Council Offer Competing Proposals for Change.)

Nevertheless, the current political pressure to lower taxes may motivate the various interests to work harder to overcome obstacles that until now have seemed insurmountable.

“Tax payers are suffering like they never suffered before. They are being squeezed – gas, milk you name it," said Mayor Feld. " If there is a way to provide tax relief by sharing services, we will do it.”

*Judy Silberstein is married to Ned Benton.