A standing-room-only crowd of about 100 people rocked Depew Village Hall Monday night with their passion to save their 124-year-old village from dissolving when it faces a community vote next Tuesday.
Twenty-one taxpayers spoke before the Village Board, and the overwhelming theme was determination and anger to preserve the government overseeing the village of 15,000 people.
If the village survives Tuesday's vote, members of the Friends of Depew group that has lobbied residents to vote against dissolution said they will work to have the village upgrade its status to that of a town to end years of what they termed excessive taxation by the towns of Cheektowaga and Lancaster, on top of their village and school taxes.
Many argued that promises of huge tax savings if the village is dissolved are not legitimate. Some predicted that services now provided by village police, fire and highway workers would be reduced if Depew was absorbed into the two towns that the village lies within.
Uniformed village firefighters lined the board's meeting room, and Fire Chief Scott Wegst denounced a flyer that dissolution proponents recently distributed to taxpayers' homes. "We've been here 124 years. I think we know what we're doing," he said.
Thunderous applause erupted in the audience, some of whom were village employees and their relatives, and retired police officers.
"I don't mind paying my village of Depew taxes because I have all these services," said Maureen Mineo, wearing a green T-shirt with white "Keep Depew" lettering. "I resent paying Cheektowaga taxes. You want to save money? Keep Depew and we'll walk away from Cheektowaga and Lancaster."
Mary and William Curr who live on the Lancaster side of Depew, were adamant that residents' safety being imperiled if police and fire services were provided by the towns and longer response times resulted. "Our safety is at risk. You cannot take all these jobs away and expect nothing to happen," said Mary Curr.
But then the two main advocates of dissolution, who circulated a petition drive last summer calling for it to be on a referendum, had their say. Irvine Reinig II and Joan Priebe, a former village clerk and trustee, took their stand - with loud boos coming from the audience.
"You've got a once in a lifetime chance," said Reinig, a 40-year resident who had to raise his voice slightly to be heard. Reinig hammered home that Depew residents will get a tax savings if the village is eliminated and slammed the village for carrying $8.2 million in debts. He said village residents would enjoy comparable services from the towns of Cheektowaga and Lancaster if Depew's government was dissolved.
"Depew has some of the highest property taxes in Western New York," Reinig said.
"If you're happy where you live, vote your way," Priebe said. "This is a democracy and we can do this."
The way state law is structured, voters in villages considering dissolving first vote "their gut," before factual information is provided detailing the actual impact of dissolution on taxes or government services. If Depew voters give a thumbs up to dissolve, the village then has 180 days to conduct a study and prepare a municipal plan that would spell out what will happen to village government property, intermunicipal agreements with other towns, village services, village employees and more. After the Village Board votes on the plan, residents may file a petition to hold a second referendum on whether to approve the dissolution plan.