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Too many villages?

March 24, 2016
Editorial , Lake Placid News

What a message the villagers of Port Henry sent in the March 15 election. We wonder if the municipal consolidation bug will spread from there to other parts of upstate New York that are floating in a sea of small, expensive, overlapping local governments.

It was probably the last election in this village on the shore of Lake Champlain, in the town of Moriah, Essex County. It is set to dissolve in 2017, as decided by a referendum of residents last year. The ballots had three incumbent village board members, uncontested. Not one was re-elected.

Instead, voters overwhelmingly chose three write-in candidates who had only begun their campaign the day before. The write-ins said they were motivated by a single priority - to make sure that dissolution takes place. They said a recent, unannounced executive session made them suspect the current board may try to obstruct the process. These write-ins are now are a majority of the five-member board.

"We want to be sure the village dissolves," trustee-elect James Curran told the Press-Republican newspaper. "The people voted to dissolve the Village of Port Henry. We're here to make it happen."

Only 138 ballots were cast, according to the Press-Republican. Yet that was a lot compared to some other North Country villages that voted on March 15.

Brushton ought to follow Port Henry's lead as soon as possible. Not a single candidate filed to run for mayor or trustee, the two open positions on the village board, and voters - all 43 of them - could do nothing but write in names. They chose Kevin Pentalow for mayor, with 20 votes, and Susan Martin for trustee, with 14.

This does not sound like a municipality with much will to live.

The same can be said for the villages of Chateaugay, Champlain and Burke, each of which elected two village board members trustees March 15. Granted, these were uncontested elections, which don't tend to draw many voters. But these numbers, reported by the Malone Telegram and the Press-Republican, are stunningly small. Chateaugay's two winners got 42 and 32 votes, respectively. (The leader was another write-in, by the way.) Champlain's got 27 votes each. And in Burke - oh, Burke - an incumbent mayor and trustee were the unanimous choice of all nine voters.

Burke had 211 people living inside its limits in the 2010 census. Brushton had 474. Chateaugay had 833. Champlain had 1,101. From an outside perspective, at least, it seems unnecessary, inefficient and probably unhealthy for any of these villages to continue. Port Henry, which will soon be dissolved, had 1,194. Keeseville, which was dissolved in 2014, had 1,815.

Dissolution has also been discussed from time to time in the Tri-Lakes villages of Lake Placid, which had 2,521 people in the 2010 census; Tupper Lake, which had 3,667; and Saranac Lake, with 5,406. It's trickier here due to funky town and county lines, especially in Saranac Lake, but it could still happen. In Tupper Lake, for instance, the fire department is an obstacle - the surrounding town could take over the police department, but state law stupidly won't let towns have fire services - but if that were resolved, it could be brought to a referendum.

It's up to the people of each village whether to dissolve or not. We know the complexities of the Tri-Lakes villages, for example, but not those of Burke, Brushton, etc. There may be good reasons why those people keep their villages around and keep paying the property taxes to uphold them.

As outsiders, however, we think it's worth pointing out that inefficiency and extra taxes are not necessarily the worst problems with New York's dense quilt of local governments - more than 4,500 of them, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, although other sources say differently. (Gov. Andrew Cuomo loves to rant that New York has "10,000 local governments.")

Perhaps the worst problem, as we see it, is that it divides the local leadership pool too much. Every municipality, school district or fire district needs a board of numerous people, elected by the people. That's a special role with a lot of responsibility and usually little reward, and there are only so many people in every small community who are qualified for it. The latest round of village elections is a good example of that. You can make an exception for Saranac Lake, the biggest village, where roughly 600 people voted on a strong field of candidates, but in many of these places, it's a struggle to give these jobs away.

We'll see if the Keeseville-Port Henry fever spreads. As these elections show, it only takes a handful of people in some of these places to make something happen.



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