Stage set for Wilson dissolution referendum - The Buffalo News
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Stage set for Wilson dissolution referendum

WILSON – A small but vocal group of Village of Wilson residents – angry about rising taxes – has successfully circulated a petition forcing the Village Board to hold a referendum asking voters to consider dissolving the village.

“I’d like to see a decrease in our taxes and duplication of services,” said Arthur Lawson, who said he collected 23 signatures in 25 contacts. “Nobody in the village has been able to tell me what they do that the town doesn’t do. The village (government) may have had a purpose at one time, but I don’t see that purpose now.”

Lawson said he and four others collected 180 signatures in the span of 10 days and formally presented the document to the Village Board last month.

Ellen Hibbard, village clerk-treasurer, then had 10 days to validate each signature, which she completed Tuesday.

Under state guidelines, the petition must be signed by a minimum of 10 percent of the registered voters in the village. This village of roughly 1,300 residents had 842 registered voters in its March elections.

“The petition was sufficient,” Hibbard reported.

The Village Board now has 30 days “to enact a resolution setting the date for the referendum on the proposed dissolution,” according to the state Department of State. Furthermore, the vote must be held between 60 and 90 days after the Village Board enacts the resolution.

The board has a regular meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. June 19 in Village Hall and is expected to set a referendum date at that time.

According to the state’s “Citizen’s Guide to Petitioning for Local Government Consolidation or Dissolution,” if the referendum is passed by a majority of the voters, the Village Board then has seven months to devise and approve a dissolution plan.

If approved, the board then must hold public hearings and possibly amend and adopt the final plan.

If the referendum fails, no one is permitted to pursue dissolving the village again for four years, according to state law.

“I feel very strongly that the citizens have spoken, and it’s our responsibility as a board to look at this carefully,” said Mayor Bernard “Bernie” Leiker. “If the referendum passes to study dissolution, I’m 100 percent behind it … if a study shows we would save money and still provide services, why wouldn’t we do it?”

Leiker said that officials from the state Department of State have pledged 50 percent of the cost of an independent study but that others knowledgeable about these studies said the state often pays the entire cost. He added that if the residents vote to dissolve a village, the state also provides up to $100,000 to implement the dissolution plan.

The state points out that its new “New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act,” which took effect in March 2010, has its flaws.

“In many ways, a vote to consolidate or dissolve is a leap in the dark,” according to the state’s Citizen’s Guide. “Since the vote comes before the plan when using the petition process, and possibly before any study of the potential impacts of consolidation or dissolution, people who vote in favor of the change are trusting that their government board will develop a sensible and suitable plan for dissolution or consolidation.”

In response, the state allows for a second vote, once the public has had a chance to see the plan and its potential effects. Residents may file another petition within 45 days of the Village Board’s adoption of the plan, but that new petition requires signatures from at least 25 percent of the registered voters. If it is termed a valid petition, a second referendum would be held to dissolve the village.

Leiker supports this idea, saying that a second vote would give residents “a chance to choose from a place of information rather than emotion. People are unhappy right now with their taxes and with village employees receiving full health care benefits. A village cannot run on emotion.”

Wade Beltramo, attorney for the New York Conference of Mayors, asked, “Why do people look at dissolving villages or towns?

“We see ebbs and flows (in applications),” he said. “During times of economic downturns, often, boards will look at it.”

He added: “We encourage cooperation and shared services between municipalities … But often what some see as a ‘tax savings’ is not really a cost savings. The cost savings village residents would receive equal approximately what they would be paying in town taxes.”

“It’s not about cost savings and efficiency, and studies bear this out,” said Beltramo. “My idea of efficiency is that you can provide the same services at a lower cost or provide better services at the same cost.”

Mary Busch was one of the five residents who took the petition door to door. She collected 54 signatures, with only two residents turning her down, she said.

Busch and her husband, Gene, are retired.

“We can’t keep paying higher taxes,” she said. “When the price of everything goes up, you just try and cut back, but we can’t afford this. And there are a lot of retired people in the village. I talked to somebody who said he doesn’t know if he should side his house or sell it. We’re on fixed incomes.”

The Village Board, by a 2-1 vote last month, with Leiker voting against it, raised the tax rate from the current $7.72 per $1,000 of assessed valuation to $8.11 per $1,000. The board also increased the final budget from $1,077,015 this year to $1,156,725 for 2014-15.

“When the village raised our taxes, they didn’t take into account the people,” Busch added. “That’s why I got involved. If you don’t use your voice, you have no right to complain. I first got involved for Gene and me, but now I’m involved for a whole lot of people here.”

“I realize that we have the wastewater treatment plant here in the village, we have the downtown area, which needs lighting, and we have our sidewalks plowed – so maybe we’d have to pay a little more for some things, and I would hope we could work something out,” Busch said. “Because if we don’t try and see what’s on the other side, we’ll never know what it would be like to become part of the town. We’ll just see how the vote comes out. That will tell all.”

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