ELLENVILLE – An "informal" meeting of town and village officials was called early last week by Ulster County Executive Mike Hein to announce the county's win of $50,000 for the first phase of the state's Municipal Consolidation and Efficiency Competition, whose prize is a $20 million grant for the state's best government consolidation proposal.
This past Monday, February 27, Ellenville mayor Jeff Kaplan noted that the county is in good standing to win the $20 million and that in its application, the county said it would spend the state funds, if won, to upgrade the county's mass transit system, develop a countywide fire exercise area, and cover costs associated with consolidating the village of Ellenville and town of Wawarsing. Furthermore, Kaplan reported that Hein had promised to utilize the already-awarded $50,000 to study the concept of consolidating.
The ideas of dissolution and consolidation are not new to village and town officials, whose previous discussions of such matters have been plagued by hot-button issues such as the future of the village police department, the potential for job losses, village debt, and the future of the courts. But Kaplan added that the award money and county involvement changes things.
The mayor said that as a first step, the county is looking for the village and town governments to submit letters in support of going forward, although he added that such statements were not to serve as an endorsement in lieu of a needed permissive referendum on the matter.
"We've been looking to find ways to assist the taxpayers in making the village more livable, more tax friendly than it is," Kaplan said, noting limitations to local growth. "We're doing the best we can but the model, long term, is one that at some point is going to fail."
In conversations he's had with the county executive, Kaplan added, the most likely scenario would involve consolidation, with the village and town governments merging, award funds going to pay off village debt, and the merged town gaining the asset of a village hall building that's largely rented. The largest stumbling block involves the village police department, which the town isn't interested in operating. However, the mayor noted that conversations between village officials and the county sheriff's department have been positive, with the growing possibility of Ellenville maintaining its own "dedicated" police force.
Early retirement incentives could alleviate expected job losses, Kaplan continued, and a new consolidated town board could be reorganized on a ward system, with representatives elected from specific areas of the town.
As for the actualities of what's at hand, the village and town have until June 28 to come up with supporting resolutions, even though there would be no vote by village residents until a full consolidation plan, developed by a special committee yet to be formed, has been completed and approved by the county and state.
At Monday's packed village meeting, village and town residents asked questions, many of which went unanswered.
Ulster County deputy commissioner of finance Chris Kelly said a likely timeline for the entire process would take a year or more, with plenty of opportunities for public input.
Regarding "plan B" options should the grant not be awarded, and the county's position on police department, job retention and the future of courts, Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress CEO Jonathan Drapkin, a consultant for the process, answered that all were good questions that would be eventually answered as the current study started and moved forward.
In other news, village treasurer Linda Polkoski said that the village is in "bad shape, the worst seen in thirty years."
Mayor Kaplan advised the board to continue researching grant opportunities and for village attorney Abby Osgood to continue developing ways for the village to tackle its load of delinquent taxes.