To say that we are our brother's keeper and need to find ways to live together amicably is a lofty goal, but is it reality? Has enough been said about the need to join hands and sing kumbaya?
Is it really up to my next-door neighbor to take care of me, even though I could take care of myself if I only had the motivation? Should we guarantee a level playing field for everyone, even the ones who make the same dumb mistakes over and over again?
Is it fair to burden those who do the right thing and make good decisions with the incompetence's of those who don't? Yes, if you are in a position to make hard choices for the good of the majority, I'm talking about you. Yes, if you are an elected official or school board member who is standing in the way of progress and financial stability for the entity for which you are responsible, I'm talking about you.
Over the past few months we have seen school districts struggle, and cities, villages and towns talk about tax increases. The press has been almost rabid in its calls for consolidation and or dissolution. Assemblyman Andy Goodell and Senator Cathy Young have been working diligently for school district consolidation; but nothing seems to happen. Let me remind you that we have 18 public school districts in our county alone, and there are 44 different cities, villages, and towns.
It is time for the local school boards to look at the declining student base as well as the tax burdens on the equally declining number of taxpayers and consider consolidation before it is too late.
According to the School Superintendent Association, there are positive reasons to consolidate. This report cited a state increase of up to 40 percent for their basic operating budget, as well as a 30 percent increase in building aid for projects initiated within 10 years of consolidation.
Additionally, a report in the National Tax Journal, said school consolidation was responsible for boosting house values and rents by about 25 percent.
Two Syracuse University professors reported, "districts with fewer than 1,500 students are likely to cut per-pupil costs significantly by consolidating."
Assemblyman Goodell said in a recent OBSERVER article, "I think there are a lot of opportunities for cost savings for the taxpayers, and equally important improvements in educational programming for students by merging school districts that have seen a substantial decrease in enrollment. When a school class size drops below a certain point, it's extremely difficult for the district to provide the full range of educational opportunities for the students in a cost-effective manner."
New York State Association of School Boards Executive Director, Michael Borges said, "While school district mergers may generate some savings for districts of less than 1,500 students, the chief benefit is student access to a wider array of educational opportunities that would not be available."
So why aren't the parents of school age children and taxpayers listening and demanding that mergers take place? I was told recently, "it is territorial."
Maybe it is territorial as well when it comes to the villages and towns in the county refusing to merge, dissolve or even contemplate any form of regionalism. But shouldn't we be looking at the benefits of dissolution. When we see a village such as Forestville celebrating a tax increase of 112 percent, shouldn't we be thinking, "can their population of just under 700 sustain that kind of tax burden?"
Why wouldn't the villages of Forestville (687 population) and Silver Creek (2699 population) think about consolidating? What about Fredonia and Pomfret? And we have the town of Dunkirk (1,318) that should become a part of the city. But, again we are faced with this need to be our own little fiefdom with our own very special identity and persevere without regard for costs. After all, that is what the County Legislature is for - they will bail us out if we get too far a field. Isn't that what just happened with Forestville?
It seems to me that consolidating smaller villages, towns and even cities would result in a tax savings and increase in service efficiencies. In New York state, there are grants available to assist with feasibility studies as well as costs of consolidation.
Todd Tranum, President and CEO of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce said in the OBSERVER, "(The) chamber had long held the opinion that there are far too many layers of government in Chautauqua County. As an organization, the Chamber is squarely in favor of reducing those layers of government by merging or dissolving municipal entities, so that there are fewer taxing jurisdictions. These steps can go a long way toward reducing the overall property tax burden in Chautauqua County. Sharing services is just one step in that path. Consolidating governmental entities is a stronger step toward reducing the tax burden for business and homeowners."
Should our villages, towns and cities consider dissolution and/or consolidation? Should we demand that the elected officials look at these options before raising our taxes again? Should our school boards get their heads out of the sand and realize that unless we consolidate our children's educational opportunities will suffer?
This subject has been in the papers, on the news, and talked about in kitchens and diners, shouldn't we insist that our elected officials start doing something? Shouldn't we let go of this fear of losing local identity, our mascots and our boundaries for the good of us all? Should we dissolve, merge, consolidate or continue to wear our blinders and just sink?
On a positive note, Sunday is Mother's Day, and my sincere wishes for every mother is that she has a great day.
Vicki Westling is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org