Cheers erupted from Rushville Village Hall Tuesday after a vote count showed residents overwhelmingly want to keep their village. With a more than 67 percent voter turnout, residents rejected dissolving the village with 179 “no” votes to 96 “yes.”
“The village has spoken ... they want to keep government close to the people,” said Mayor John Sawers, who was nearly speechless and overwhelmed with relief just after the Yates County Board of Elections inspectors announced the results.
The excitement, with hugging and cheers, filled the hall for about 20 minutes and then poured onto Main Street where a number of others joined the celebration. Elections inspector Brian Fenton said he had never seen such enthusiasm after a vote.
“Now we can move on,” said Sawers’ daughter, Kim Payne, a village trustee.
Tuesday’s vote ended more than six months of controversy marked by heated board meetings, bitter exchanges on social media and disagreements pitting neighbor against neighbor.
The 150-year-old Rushville, with a population of 700, straddles two towns and counties — some villagers live in Gorham, Ontario County, while others live in Potter, in Yates County.
Former mayor Jon Bagley spearheaded the move to dissolve late last year when he began circulating a petition to force the Village Board to hold a vote. Bitter disagreement between the previous Village Board under Bagley and the current board under Mayor John Sawers compounded controversy. Dissolution opponents claimed Bagley pushed to dissolve the village due to sour grapes over losing the election. Bagley lost reelection to Sawers in March 2016 by an 81-58 vote. Bagley said he didn’t think about dissolution when he was mayor and research showing cost savings and other advantages prompted the move.
Bagley was not at Village Hall for the vote results and didn’t respond to a phone call after the vote.
In December, after the Village Board rejected the petition over a technicality, Bagley launched a second petition all the while in the midst of a dispute with the Village Board over the village-owned Martin Tire building. A handshake deal struck when Bagley was mayor allowed the Imperial Wrestling Club use of the building. But the current board sent the club packing over arguments regarding money, legal issues and other details. The club removed its belongings from the building in February, moving equipment to a building Bagley owns in Gorham.
Also in February, Bagley’s second petition passed muster, requiring Tuesday’s vote. The Village Board held meetings this spring with MRB Group consultants to present possible outcomes of dissolution and answer questions.
Because Rushville falls in two towns and two counties, property tax rates per $1,000 assessed valuation would be different for current Rushville residents depending on where they live, said MRB’s Diana Smith. This year, Rushville needs a $153,223 tax levy to fund its preliminary $475,875 budget. This year, everyone is assessed at the same tax rate. But post-dissolution, because Ontario County shares sales tax with its municipalities, its residents would have seen lower property tax rates than residents in Yates County, which does not share sales tax revenue. As well, Smith said that if Rushville were to dissolve, both towns could receive Local Government Citizen Empowerment Tax Credit (CETC) annually — as long as CETC is approved annually by the state Legislature as part of the state budget.
While noting that tax rates likely would have gone down for village residents if they voted in favor of dissolution, Smith added that it would be “sheer speculation” to say how much or whether village services would be impacted.
About 40 people turned out last week at a meeting hosted by pro-dissolution group One Rushville. They heard from Bill Murray, who was mayor when the village of Macedon dissolved this year, and Jack Bailey, who led the campaign to dissolve the village of Lyons, which took place in 2016. Both men gave glowing reports of dissolution, citing significant savings for taxpayers. In Lyons, Bailey said that in 2016, former village residents saw a 62 percent tax break due to dissolution. Even residents of the town of Lyons saw savings, of about 7 percent, he added.
Bailey and Murray emphasized that every community is different, though “every study I’ve ever seen has come up with savings,” Bailey said.
Bailey said after the village of Lyons dissolved, it was still the same community under the title of “hamlet” except its citizens didn’t have to pay for duplication of services. He pooh-poohed the argument that dissolving a village destroys identity and citizens’ ability to stay close to their elected officials.
“Your town board is not in Albany,” he said. “Your officials are here,” Bailey said.
Bagley said Rushville has enough assets to prepay special districts that would be formed to cover services now provided by the village. Cash assets of general, water and sewer funds as of May 31, 2016 was just under $990,000, said Bagley, from information obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.