MEXICO — The Oswego County Shared Services Panel met for the first time in 2018 Wednesday, with leaders from municipalities across the county convening to set forth a path to develop a state-mandated property tax savings plan before September and decide which areas to focus on.
Developed as part of the state budget last year, the shared services panel — which includes each city, town and village — is charged with creating a countywide tax savings plan that identifies efficiencies and savings through inter-municipal agreements and other cost- or service-sharing deals. Following several meetings in 2017, the panel opted not to submit a plan and focus on significant long-term tax relief.
Officials Wednesday identified health insurance, wastewater management, record keeping and animal control as areas to seek shared services and cost savings.
County Administrator Phil Church, who is tasked with leading the Oswego County panel, started the meeting with an overview of the timeline and duties of the shared services panel, and a brief description of the panel’s 2017 activities.
Since the panel last met in late 2017, there are four “concrete projects” already being planned that could be included in the shared services plan, Church said, including the formation of a waste water district at the Oswego County Airport, a joint special operations team and active shooter training.
Minetto Supervisor Dave Domicolo said the top priorities in 2017 were health care and records management, which he said were “two crucial things” because health insurance is a major cost and municipalities are running out of space to hold records.
Members of the panel largely agreed health care should be the number one priority. Though forming a health care consortium may be a multi-year process, leaders say it could produce the largest potential cost savings and should not be ignored.
Parish Supervisor Mary Ann Phillips pointed out officials didn’t need to “reinvent the wheel,” because Tompkins County already formed a health care consortium like Oswego County leaders are seeking to develop.
“Forming a consortium like that is a multi-year thing,” Church said. “It may be something we want to continue to work on, but I don’t know if it’s going to fit in the plan we have to submit this year.”
Oswego Town Supervisor Rick Kaulfuss suggested officials could work together on Lake Ontario flooding mitigation measures. Several municipalities are seeking funding to recover from last year’s flooding and prepare for future flooding, Kaulfuss said, and if the towns and villages shared a grant writer those efforts could be included in the plan.
“We need grant writers that help with some of these grants we’re putting together,” Kaulfuss said. “Maybe we could work together on some of those mitigation plans and work on some of those hazard recovery programs and make that part of our shared services.”
Church said the county recently hired a firm to handle grant writing and lobbying duties, and noted it may be possible to share the firm’s services or hire a different firm to share amongst towns and villages.
Officials also discussed merging lighting districts and moving to LED fixtures to save money, and Phoenix Mayor Ryan Wood said leaders could develop municipal solar farms to cut down on electricity costs.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow said the committee should pick up where it left off, and consider a countywide property assessment program. A countywide assessment program would be beneficial and simple, Barlow said, noting it was generally met with an open mind by the 2017 panel.
“That process is rather standard and not arbitrary,” Barlow said. “The fear of losing local control of service is not really relevant to property assessments.”
Barlow said the panel should also take a look at technology departments, and see what could be done to consolidate and improve technology services.
Panel members are considering splitting into subcommittees based on geography or to tackle specific issues, but nothing was formalized Wednesday.
In the panel’s final 2017 report, members pointed out there were several obstacles to sharing justice courts and creating health insurance consortiums. Church said a number of other counties made similar claims, and the state says actions are being taken to fix those issues.
Church said the state has responded and Gov. Cuomo ordered the state Department of Financial Services, which oversees insurance, to come up with guidance and assistance for municipalities to create a health care consortium.
The state is also reviewing several other regulations identified as hurdles to shared services, according to Church, including measures to allow for court consolidations and countywide code enforcement.
The county would be willing to facilitate discussions involving countywide code enforcement, Church said, noting the county has identified problems with the local housing stock and land use practices as a driver of chronic unemployment and low health outcomes.
Improving the county housing stock is seen as an imperative component of future economic vitality and quality of life, Church noted in his presentation.
In recent years, a number of measures have been taken to improve the local housing stock, including the formation of the Oswego County Land Bank, a shorter foreclosure process and improved code enforcement in the city of Oswego.
The timeline for developing a shared services plan is identical to last year, with the panel required to submit a plan to the county Legislature by August and present the plan to the public before October 15. Three public hearings are required before the panel can approve the plan.
The panel is expected to meet again in April.