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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 5, 2012
Will Albany County travel a rough road to shared services?
By Zach Simeone and Anne Hayden
ALBANY COUNTY In a collective effort to look for savings, all 19 municipalities in Albany County have agreed to pursue a local-government efficiency grant that would cover a study of how highway departments can share services.
The deputy county executive said last week that officials are also discussing some administrative areas where sharing services might save money, and where a study would not be required to make those changes.
Deputy Albany County Executive Michael Perrin said that discussions on the shared-services study and the process of applying for the $75,000 efficiency grant began on Feb. 29 at a meeting of county officials in Colonie.
“The leaders in the county were looking for some concrete opportunities to save money,” Perrin said last week. “Highway services and highway operations kept coming up in these conversations. So, that’s how we decided where to go with the focus of this grant application and this proposed study.”
“New York State is already behind the eight-ball,” said County Executive Daniel McCoy on Tuesday, speaking at a Guilderland Town Board meeting. He spoke of the important of shared services and, referring to the state-set tax-levy cap restricting government spending, said, “I just tell people we have to do things differently these are things we are all going to have to live with in a 2-percent world.”
Mary Rozak at the Albany County Executive’s office said that the $75,000 efficiency grants come from the Department of State.
The study will be performed by the Laberge Group, and led by Benjamin Syden, the company’s director of planning and community development, who lives in Colonie.
“As a county resident, it’s gratifying to see our local officials being willing to work together in a very short time frame, on a topic that could yield very positive results for everyone,” Syden told The Enterprise. “If you can decrease costs while maintaining quality services, you win.”
Laberge, based out of Albany since 1964, is what Syden called “a full-service municipal consulting firm,” employing engineers, architects, planners, and surveyors.
“What we do in planning is help communities figure out what they want to be when they grow up, with comprehensive plans, economic development strategies and shared service studies,” said Syden. “The firm realizes that 90 percent of our clients are municipalities; we understand the physical constraints and challenges facing governments on a daily basis. We also understand that there are quality services that have to be delivered on a daily basis.”
Syden said that his 19 years of working in planning with governments began in 1993 with the New York State Assembly, and more recently included a shared-services study in Chemung County, N.Y., the same kind of study that Laberge would be performing in Albany County if the grants become available, and if the county’s municipalities agree to go forward with the study.
In 2006, a plan was proposed in Berne to merge with the county’s department of public works, but failed after an uprising from town residents and highway workers, but Syden says that “times have changed.”
“We didn’t have a property tax cap five years ago; we weren’t coming out of a recession five years ago,” said Syden. “Highway services are challenging areas to look at because, in most cases, you have separately elected superintendents who are afraid of people losing jobs. This isn’t the county saying, ‘We’re taking you over.’ This is the county saying, ‘Hey, let’s look at all options. There may be ways that we can just give you the money, and you go do the road maintenance.’ The whole idea of this is to find ways to share services, from county to towns, from towns to county, and from towns to towns.”
Local reactions have ranged from the cautious suburban Guilderland’s supervisor believes small towns may gain most by sharing to the enthusiastic rural Berne’s supervisor describes himself as “a big fan” of consolidation.
Guilderland Supervisor Kenneth Runion said that, without seeing the results of the study, he hazards a guess that consolidation on a highway level would be more advantageous to smaller municipalities.
“You can’t tell if the shared services would be beneficial to us until the study is complete sometimes these studies show that it would not be helpful,” said Runion. “Part of the study could look at the fact that it isn’t cost-effective for the county to take care of county roads in the bigger municipalities, and they could focus on smaller departments with less equipment.”
Or, said Runion, the town could do roadwork on county roads within its limits, and be reimbursed for the work by the county.
“The study may just show there’s an effective way to deliver services and spread the cost over the municipalities,” Runion said. “We need to get away from providing services at a parochial level, and move toward a cooperation in the delivery of services.”
Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier spearheaded a plan to consolidate highway services between Berne and Albany County six years ago. The plan came after a study showed that snowplow routes were inefficient due to the network of town and county or state roads in Berne.
In some areas, Crosier said in 2006, there is no way to get from one town road to another without using county roads, which is problematic for snowplows that have to clear just the town roads.
Forty-seven percent of the miles driven by town trucks on the snowplow routes in Berne are on county roads. The consolidation plan proposed by Crosier was never approved, after a public outcry of concerns over potential job loss.
Crosier feels the same way now as he did six years ago wholeheartedly supporting the push for shared services.
“Wouldn’t it make sense that, while we were on a county road, we simply plowed it and got paid for it, instead of reproducing it and having the county do it?” asked Crosier.
Some people, he said, are under the impression that shared services could mean cutting jobs.
“I’m not looking to cut jobs; I’m looking to save jobs,” said Crosier. “If you pay attention to governments, it is when they fail to make changes that create efficiencies that people lose their jobs.”
As revenues start to shrink, and towns need to keep the level of services current or become more efficient, shared services is something “we just simply have to look at,” according to Crosier.
He envisions a shared-services agreement where the day-to-day maintenance of roads within Berne would be carried out by the town highway department; the large projects, such as road reconstruction, installation of guard rails, and large tree trimming would be done by the county.
“This could really benefit us, because we would no longer have to go out to bid for large projects like that,” said Crosier. “You can no longer just say, ‘This is my little kingdom, and that is your little kingdom.’ It won’t work like that anymore there are many things we have done the same for many years, and we simply can’t afford to do that anymore.”
Savings down the road?
As of the 2010 census, Chemung County has 88,830 residents, less than one-third of Albany County’s population of 304,204.
“In Chemung County,” Syden said, “we met with every single highway superintendent; we took a tour of every highway facility; and the superintendents are both stakeholders and participants in developing the goals and strategies in that study.”
In 2006, the Chemung County Legislature formed a municipal highway services board to explore options for sharing services to reduce spending. The county received a grant in 2008 to further research those opportunities, and, in 2006, began working with Laberge, Hunt Engineering, and the University at Buffalo Regional Institute to develop a shared-services plan.
After about a year-and-a-half of work, Chemung County adopted the resulting plan in 2010, and began implementing the new strategies in 2011.
“They have a county executive by the name of Tom Santuli,” Syden said of Chemung County, “who basically asked, ‘Why do we have 14 separate divisions doing the same things, and could we have a more coordinated fashion of government?’ So, the towns and villages got together, and we tell them to leave their name badges and business cards outside, and come in with their resources at hand.”
According to Laberge’s report, the Chemung County study began with highway department heads providing “a complete list of employees, job titles, full-time or part-time designation, salary or hourly wage, years of service, and union membership. Department heads were also asked to identify the duties assigned to each staff person and any specialized skills or licenses possessed by individuals.” This was done “to compare existing staffing between departments, and to identify staffing similarities needed to provide existing services.”
Through the study, the county developed a three-tiered approach to saving money:
The first piece of the study was the complete functional consolidation of the highway services of Chemung County; the city of Elmira; the villages of Elmira Heights and Horseheads; and the towns of Horseheads and Elmira into the Consolidated Urban Highway Services Area, or CUHSA;
The second was the centralization of common and specialized services; and
The third, the transfer of winter road maintenance responsibilities from the county to the individual municipalities.
According to the report, the formation of the CUHSA was projected to save $14.2 million dollars over five years by:
Consolidating municipalities’ equipment inventories; prioritizing services; using surplus equipment to offset purchases; and selling the remaining equipment, saving $9.6 million over five years;
Deploying CUHSA highway services from the county and Elmira’s facilities; using the Elmira West facility as a salt reload site during the winter; using the towns of Elmira East and Horseheads’ garages as storage sites; and closing the facilities in the villages of Elmira Heights and Horseheads, as they are neither strategically located nor equipped to support consolidated services, saving $3,671,000 over five years; and
Reducing salaries and benefits for current highway employees through negotiation of a consolidated union contract; paying new hires 5 percent less than current employees; and reducing benefit rates by 20 percent for new hires, saving $951,000 over five years.
“They had six highway garages in four miles,” Syden said of the municipalities now in the CUHSA. “They haven’t finished yet baby steps. But over a couple years, they were going to consolidate into the county to provide seamless services in that area.”
Perrin said last week that, at the inter-municipal meeting in February, Albany County officials began discussing other means of saving money through the reworking of administrative areas, like procurement, civil service, human resources, and information technology.
“But we probably don’t need a study to work on those things; we can move ahead with that on our own,” Perrin said. “There’s no need for new state law or authorities for doing this, as it really needs to happen on the staff level. So, we plan to pursue that.”
He went on, “One area where there’s probably some fairly low-hanging fruit is procurement. State law is currently designed to allow jurisdictions to get together and issue what would be potentially bigger purchases, getting better prices for everybody, together with sharing professional services in this area.”
One option for savings in procurement is the formation of a group-purchasing consortium, but there are other possibilities, Perrin went on.
“I don’t think there’s anything to say a particular town or city in Albany County couldn’t wholly handover its purchasing operations to the county,” said Perrin. “Albany County’s purchasing procedures and our staff are quite sophisticated. It’s a process that is fairly well constrained by state law and local policy, but the trick is really in how to write a contract and how to advertise that contract in a way that’s reaching the most bidders that will likely give you the best price. One thing we do is use a website called BidNet that literally has national reach.”
The next step, he said, is to gather Albany County’s officials for further discussions.
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