In response to a petition circulated by Cris Pasto and 13 others, the Spencer Village Board voted to hire the Laberge Group, an Albany consulting firm, to do a study on the pros and cons of dissolving the village.
The Jan. 6 meeting of the Spencer Village Board was at times heated as supporters of maintaining the village government structure exchanged comments with those in favor of dissolution. With 12 members of the public present, there was an unusually high attendance at the meeting.
The motion to hire Laberge was passed contingent on validating the required 91 signatures. The study is designed to provide hard data on saving taxpayers money by eliminating overlapping layers of government. Will taxes go up, down or stay the same? The second part of the study addresses the services that the village provides, such as road maintenance, streetlight monitoring, Panther Pak summer day camp for kids, the police and fire departments, maintenance of Nichols Park and pond, etc.
The state believes that taxpayers will save money if a village dissolves, so it offers a financial incentive in the form of a grant for a village to undertake the study. When the study does result from the petition process (voter initiated), the state will pay 90 percent of the $25,000 cost. The village portion will be $2,500. The Spencer trustees believe they will qualify for the grant, but had not applied yet due to not having the password for the program.
The petition was turned in Jan. 2, and the board has only 10 calendar days to verify the signatures and apply for the grant. At the 30-day mark they must set a referendum date for the citizens to vote. Within 60 to 90 days, the referendum must be held. There was considerable discussion and possible misunderstanding of the vote process evident in the meeting. Cris Pasto was present and stated several times that he believes the people must vote twice for dissolution to take place. He was corrected repeatedly by the trustees, who met with Laberge in a workshop meeting to learn about the process.
According to Laberge, if the referendum passes, there is no automatic second vote. The only way to get a second citizens’ vote is for the unhappy voters to circulate a second petition, which requires a higher threshold of valid signatures, requesting a second vote.
Some discord was also expressed over the idea that petition carriers were not representing the petition accurately when asking for signatures. Joan Weston said, “People were clearly told that the petition was only to support a study, not for dissolution.” She suggested this might be fraud. Others agreed that this was the way the petition was presented to them, also, but perhaps those carrying it misunderstood, so that any misrepresentation was by mistake, not intent or outright lies.
Mayor Ken Sutfin told Pasto and others present in support of the petition that he wished they had come to the board first and worked with the board instead of doing it with no consultation. Sutfin said that the 10-day deadline put the board at risk of not being able to access the grant money for the study, which means the Village would have to pay the entire cost out of taxpayers’ pockets. Sutfin assumes the village will get the grant, but it is not guaranteed.
Sutfin also said that if the petitioners had worked with the board instead of forcing the issue, the board could have initiated the study, made sure they got the grant money, and also provided the entire dissolution/consolidation plan to the voters before they voted to dissolve or not – so they would be fully informed when voting on the advantages and disadvantages.
Sutfin said a vote to dissolve the village would be required in order to do the study, so the consequences are not known in advance. Those present speaking against the petition were very distressed by this.
In a later phone call with Sutfin, the mayor clarified that upon speaking further with LaBarge, the consulting firm told him they are confident a study could be done prior to the vote.
Also present to protest the proposed dissolution, which would eliminate the Spencer Village Police Department, was Diahann Hesler, S-VE School Superintendent. She told the board how important Chief Michael Monteiro is in his efforts to be visible at all three schools, form positive relationships with the students, keep principals updated on pertinent information, and respond promptly to a call from school needing help with a student in crisis.
Hesler said that mental health stresses on today’s students often require outside assistance for the principal to manage the situation and that Monteiro is a vital, necessary part of that team. “Losing Chief Monteiro would be a true loss to the school, both kids and adults,” she said. “Please consider that when dissolving the village.”
Joan Weston noted that fire insurance rates are based on miles from the responding fire department. The closest one left to Spencer will be Community Fire and Rescue, so everyone in the village will see their fire rates go up. Fire Chief Andy Speer pointed out that the town can not own or operate a fire department, so if the fire department continues to exist, it will become a fire district. He assured the board that total taxes will go up if that happens.
In our later interview with Sutfin, he confirmed that it was a possibility (or even likely) that a new fire district would be formed within the Town of Spencer to provide fire coverage to the area.
Pasto insisted again, towards the end of the discussion, that two votes are required to dissolve, and he was corrected again with a loud, “No! That’s not true!” A second vote occurs only if dissolution passes on the first vote and enough signatures can be obtained to request a second referendum.
Sutfin finished the discussion by saying that the board members would try to sit down to draw up a list of all that they do for the Village and the services that the Village currently provides, to let people know what is likely to continue and what they’ll lose if the Village dissolves. “The police department will definitely go, though,” he concluded.
The town board plans to televise its next meeting, to be held on Feb. 3, and to possibly live stream it on Facebook as well. Sutfin said LaBarge will also be present at the meeting to answer questions and that the board intends to set a date for the vote at that meeting as well.