Joint jail may save Yates and Schuyler taxpayers

Gwen Chamberlain

A combined jail facility shared by Yates and Schuyler Counties is one of the ways the two entities might work together to provide more efficient services for local property taxpayers.

However, it’s more likely the first shared services will come within the county highway departments.

Last week, three representatives from Center for Governmental Research reviewed a draft report on their firm’s study of the two county’s existing services and described potential ways for the counties to save funds by sharing services or consolidating programs.

While a complete merger of the two counties is still on the table, there appear to be several hurdles.

“Without considerable more information exploring consolidation of capital assets, there is not enough here to drive the merger concept,” commented Yates County Legislative Chairman Timothy Dennis after spending a few days reviewing the draft study.

“The draft service and financial overview showed how similar the counties are in demographics, economies and organization. The draft governance report drives those similarities home in regard to how lean various departments and functions appear in the two counties,” Dennis added.

Through the study CGR has found a number of areas for potential savings — perhaps as much as $1.4 million in annual spending, but there are other areas where consolidation might be particularly challenging or impractical. The impact of a merged county on revenues for various programs is not clear.

A first look at the financial picture appears to favor Schuyler County with more property tax levy savings, but some scenarios suggest reduced costs for government operations in Yates County.

While there are many similarities between the counties, Schuyler County Legislative Chairman Dennis Fagan says one of the major differences lies in sales tax revenue sharing. In Schuyler County, the eight towns and four villages each receive a share of local sales tax revenues. The only instance of sharing such revenues in Yates County is through a recently adopted agreement with the village of Penn Yan, which will receive a percentage of occupancy tax revenues beginning as soon as 2015.

Yates County does not share any sales tax revenues with the nine towns and four villages here.

Current opportunity

In the short term, Fagan says officials from both counties have started discussions about the feasibility of merging the two highway departments when Schuyler County’s Superintendent Greg Mathews retires.

“The reality is, the locations of the base of operations will stay the same, but we might be able to share some services in management,” Fagan says.

From Yates County’s perspective, Dennis sees the prime area for sharing as the jail and communications facility. “The possibility of a combined public safety facility devoted to corrections and dispatch for the two counties to share is a prime opportunity to explore. Obviously, there would need to be considerable state aid and support for this to happen,” he commented.

Yates County Legislators have been talking about the challenges of staffing the outdated configuration of the existing jail in Penn Yan for some time, but the cost of such a project has been a deterrent.

Schuyler County Administrator Timothy O’Hearn said the jail in Watkins Glen is limited to 30 beds, and females cannot be housed in the facility.

Because the two counties emergency communications dispatch systems are similar, they could also easily present opportunities for sharing.

Yates County Administrator Sarah Purdy asked if there is potential for state funding to help with the capital expense of a joint jail and emergency communications facility, and was told by the CGR associates that precedents have been set for the state to pay up front building costs for such projects.

More modest savings

The draft report includes areas where there might be savings through shared or consolidated services, mainly through the elimination of a department head position if the counties were merged or the departments consolidated in some form. In many cases, however the number of workers would remain the same because the demand for services would not decrease. Those departments include: district attorney, public defender, administrator, treasurer, real property, county clerk, county attorney, civil service and personnel, records management, buildings and grounds, information technology, sheriff’s department, probation, emergency management, public health, social services, veterans services, and board of elections.

Some of those departments are led by an elected official (district attorney, sheriff, treasurer, clerk), meaning a consolidation would require some kind of action by state legislation.

Steering committee members were asked to submit questions and comments to CGR over the next two weeks. The report will be finalized in preparation for presentation to the public in early 2015.

“Both counties should continue to explore sharing or consolidating as vacancies or opportunities arise,” says Dennis, noting, “Almost all potential savings are modest, as they really are identified in the sharing or consolidation of management level positions.”