DiNapoli talks challenges of small villages
Earlier this week, the former Sherman village treasurer was charged with allegedly stealing $20,000 from residents who paid their sewer, water and taxes in cash. Last year, the former Bemus Point village treasurer was arrested for stealing more than $60,000 from the village coffers by writing checks to herself.
Both villages are very small. Sherman had a population of 681 people in 2020, while Bemus Point had a population of 235 people. While declining to say that all small populated village governments should dissolve, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli did admit that governments with small populations have unique challenges when it comes to accountability.
“In small villages you don’t have the kind of internal controls. You don’t have checks and balances in terms of multiple people looking at the work being done,” he said during a visit with The Post-Journal and OBSERVER editorial boards. “You often have folks who know each other for generations and they trust each other. In the case of Sherman, she was taking cash, so it was easy for her to manipulate what was going on.”
DiNapoli stopped by the Jamestown office Friday before heading to Chautauqua Institution.
The Post-Journal/OBSERVER asked DiNapoli if he believes all villages under a certain size should dissolve, something he declined to endorse. “I think it’s hard to generalize because there are some smaller communities where they never have these issues,” he said.
In Chautauqua County, there are 13 villages. Along with Bemus Point and Sherman, there are three other villages with a population under 1,000 residents — Panama (409), Cassadaga (502) and Sinclairville (624). While Fredonia has a population of 10,331, none of the other villages have a population of 3,000 people. They are as follows: Celoron (1,149), Brocton (1,409), Mayville (1,436), Sherman (1,653), Falconer (2,241), Silver Creek (2,328), Westfield (2,766) and Lakewood (2,823).
DiNapoli, whose office regularly audits villages, towns, counties, schools, fire districts and cities, notes that New York’s foundation is a being a “home-rule” state.
“People are used to a local control tradition, moreso than other states,” he said. “We have all these levels of government and people, generally speaking, don’t want to give it up.”
DiNapoli notes that if residents want, they can dissolve their village governments. In the last decade, the villages of Cherry Creek and Forestville both decided to dissolve after property taxes skyrocketed.
“Communities should look at it because some have done it successfully” he said. “I don’t think you should assume the status quo. If we were redrawing the maps of New York state for our villages, town and our school districts we wouldn’t draw them like they are now; it makes no sense.”
For communities that choose not to dissolve, DiNapoli said it’s important that those governments keep checks and balances in place. “Someone’s got to be looking over the books and verify what’s coming in and what’s going out. That’s where we always find the gap,” he said.
DiNapoli notes that his office provides training for those who want it or need it. He said too often elected officials who have been around don’t keep up with the training and sometimes brand new officials are elected and they don’t realize the need for the training. For villages and cities, his office works with the New York Conference Of Mayors to provide training.