Executive candidates debate role of village, town government
According to the U.S. Census, the village of Panama has 426 residents. The village has an elected mayor and only two trustees. It does not collect property tax, but does receive sales tax from the county. Norman P. Green, who is running for county executive on the Democratic ticket, believes governments this size shouldn’t exist.
“Panama continues to exist, even though it doesn’t have much of a government,” said Green. “They collect sales tax and we should cut that off. … For these very small communities that are existing off the sales tax, the sales tax has become a drug.”
The comment made by Green came up during a private debate between Green and PJ Wendel sponsored by the OBSERVER and Post-Journal on what can be done to bring towns and villages together to cut costs in the future.
Wendel, meanwhile, noted that ultimately it’s up to residents of their prospective towns and villages if they want to keep their government. “What I found, like anything else, when people are told and mandated, that’s when the frustration starts. That’s when they draw the line in the sand and dig their heels in, and fight tooth and nail,” he said.
When asked what can be done to cut costs in towns and villages, Wendel said things have been going on for several years through shared services. For example, in the village of Lakewood and the town of Busti, the two municipalities work together when it comes to chipping and paving roads. If neither municipality has the right equipment, the county can often provide it.
One area the county is looking to assist towns and villages with is code enforcement. “Some of these towns and villages only have two to three hours, or six hours a week, in code enforcement. Buildings are going up without the proper permitting or proper inspections prior to completion or given a certificate of occupancy,” said Wendel.
A plan has been submitted to the state for review.
Another area of success Wendel pointed to was Mina, French Creek and Sherman sharing a town justice. He said that example could be expanded elsewhere to reduce the 36 courts in the county. Housing court is something the county is exploring right now, by putting housing courts in only Jamestown and Dunkirk.
Green shared his own personal experience of being an Ellicott Town Councilman and how they were able to ensure sidewalks were installed and maintained on Route 394. They were able to get the village of Celoron to plow sidewalks, which continues to this day.
He also shared how during his time in the Board of Elections, they were able to manage the majority of village elections instead of having villages run their own elections, which still occurs in other counties, including Cattaraugus County.
In 2020, he and his counterpart Republican Election Commissioner Brian Abram created and implemented a plan for school districts, when ballots had to be mailed out. “There was disasters throughout the state of New York. … Not in Chautauqua County, because in Chautauqua County, we worked together,” he said.
Wendel, however, felt that what Green did during his tenure on the Board of Elections is not relevant to the question. “We’re not talking about school districts and elections. We’re talking about how do the towns and villages work together, and we’re doing that. We’re going to continue to do that,” he said.
Green defended his answer, saying his time in the Board of Elections shows he’s someone who gets things done. “I’m a guy of action. I wouldn’t be waiting for studies,” he said.
Green also believes the county executive needs to do more to eliminate some of its government. “We have as many towns as the county of Erie, which is seven times bigger than we are. It’s just absurd,” he said.
Wendel shared how both Forestville and Cherry Creek decided to dissolve, but in Lakewood and Sinclairville, residents there didn’t want to. In all those cases, it was their choice. “Towns and villages don’t want to be told what to do. They want to have that autonomy,” he said.
Green applauded Forestville, for how it has transformed from a village to a hamlet. “Forestville dissolved and is now thriving as a group that is continuing to do all they can do to make sure everybody knows that Forestville continues to exist,” he said.
He believes Forestville’s success needs to be shared to get more villages to follow suit. “It take a county executive that’s truly interested in seeing these dissolutions. The county executive needs to go down to the communities personally and be involved,” Green said.
Going back to Panama, Green said if the county cut off sales tax payments to Panama, the village government would likely dissolve and the money would go to the town of Harmony. Right now, Panama uses the money to provide free garbage collection to village residents. “That’s pretty smart of them but not at all what we should be doing in government in Chautauqua County,” he said.