OSWEGO — Municipal leaders from across Oswego County recently finalized a shared services report for the upcoming year that includes proposals that could save taxpayers more than $2 million if the plans come to fruition.
County Administrator Phil Church, who is tasked with leading the county shared services panel, provided a public presentation Tuesday night of the aptly named County-wide Shared Services Panel Report for 2019. Church, along with 35 city, town, village and school district leaders in the county, developed the report over the course of several meetings last year and submitted the 10-proposal plan to state officials in December.
The county shared service panels were first convened by state mandate as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2017 budget and later made permanent. As part of the program, the state has offered reimbursement in the form of matching savings for any avoided costs or savings municipalities can prove as a result of shared services included in the plans.
By far the largest savings in the plan would come from Oswego County teaming up with Onondaga County and the city of Syracuse to contract with a pharmacy benefits manager. Officials estimate the joint effort could save Oswego County roughly $1.7 million annually.
“The biggest one is proposal number one for pharmacy benefits,” Church said in terms of overall savings. “The idea was that if all three large governments pooled together we could find significant savings. That worked and as long as we sign the contracts in 2020 we’ll be reimbursed.”
Municipal leaders initially considered foregoing a 2019 shared services plan, Church said, but as the year progressed several proposals surfaced and the opportunity to apply for state reimbursement led to the 10-proposal plan. The county opted not to submit a shared services plan in the program’s first year, but did submit an extensive plan in 2018 that included 19 proposals with more than $6 million in potential savings.
Asked Tuesday if the shared services panel was still a productive endeavor after three years, Church said “as long as the state reimbursement comes in a timely manner” the practice would still be viable and constructive moving forward.
“Every little bit helps so we’re willing to continue doing this,” he said, but noted there are travel costs and time that must be taken into consideration. “We’ll continue to look for shared services and ways to save money.”
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow, who as the city’s chief executive sits on the panel, said continuing to explore shared services is “always a worthwhile endeavor,” adding shared services usually relate to cost savings for the taxpayer.
“Continuing to review ideas and explore other opportunities is smart, because new ideas come up and new doors open,” the mayor said.
Barlow cited a shared or centralized assessing model that he proposed during the 2018 shared services panel as a potential future savings plan. Though it sparked little interest at the time, several municipalities have since hired the city’s assessor through outside contracts. Barlow said it would likely have been less expensive through shared services and could have resulted in state reimbursement funds.
Other proposals in the county’s plan include municipalities sharing web site hosting and design services with Oswego County; joint bidding for large scale items between all county municipalities, Onondaga and Cayuga counties; shared tax collection and credit card system between municipalities; shared highway service agreements between several towns; shared grant consulting services and shared predevelopment consulting on water and wastewater projects.
The city of Oswego’s offer to administer state grants through Gov. Cuomo’s Lake Ontario Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI) was also included in the plan, along with a proposal from the towns of Richland and Sandy Creek to jointly purchase and share a screener in the highway department.
In order to secure state reimbursement, Church said the projects in the 2019 report must be carried out in 2020. He said rather than submit multi-year projects, officials included only the design and preconstruction portions of certain projects to ensure completion by the end of 2020 was feasible.
Like the first report released by the panel, officials called on the state to reform insurance law to allow large and small municipalities to save significant taxpayer dollars. According to local officials, health insurance costs often account for more than 10 percent of a municipality’s budget, with costs reaching as high as 18 percent in the town of Amboy.
Local officials focused considerable attention in the early stages of the shared services panel on the pursuit of a shared health care system — similar to the Greater Tompkins County Municipal Health Insurance Consortium — but the formation of such an entity could take several years and there are legal barriers in place.
“Legal barriers in New York state prevent small local governments from sharing health plans to lower costs, such as the 100 employee minimum required to share health plans and the 2,000 covered lives minimum to join a health insurance consortium,” the 2019 report states. “Although identified as a significant barrier to shared services for the past two years, the state has made no meaningful reform to remove such barriers.”
Actual savings from many of the projects in the 2019 report are not clear and won’t be until projects are put out to bid and/or agreements are finalized.
Officials estimate the shared website hosting and design services, which would see municipalities join in the county’s recently revamped website, would save each municipality about $11,750. Church said the village of Phoenix and towns of New Haven, Granby, Sandy Creek and Hannibal have expressed interest.
The tax software and credit card system would save each municipality choosing to join about $4,000 each in 2020 and another $600 annually.
Joint bidding for large-scale items, such as road salt, could save significant funds year-after-year. The city of Oswego and Oswego County previously combined with Onondaga County purchasing in an effort to save money, something Barlow said is “going well.”
“When we started, and still occasionally, we have some small technical issues but at the end of the day we save $175,000 a year because we were able to close our purchasing office and consolidate with Onondaga,” Barlow said. “I’d say $175,000 is worth dealing with relatively minor issues.”
Barlow said bulk pricing and the ability to “piggy back” on contracts have saved the city additional money since the merger.
“It was a lot of work at first and certainly any change for bureaucrats is always difficult, but we got through it and we’ve realized some of the financial benefits,” the mayor said.
Final implementation of the projects included in the report is subject to approval from the elected officials of each individual municipality, Church noted. An affirmative vote from panel members indicated that the individuals, as the chief executive officer of a municipality, agree the ideas are worth pursuing but the plan is non-binding.
Church said there are not yet any shared service panel meetings scheduled for 2020, but panel members are required to meet at least twice annually.