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Battle lines drawn over dissolution of Williamsville

As a new state law took effect Sunday making it easier to force a vote on dissolving village governments, one of Western New York's most affluent communities was shaping up to become a key battleground in efforts to reduce the size and cost of local government.

But even after learning that they pay an average of $170 more per year in property taxes than homeowners in the Town of Amherst, some Williamsville residents said they aren't willing to give up their village government.

"It's worth every penny," said Leigh Mackowiak-Harvey, one of 130 people who attended a meeting of the Williamsville Citizen Study Group on Sunday in the Historic Village Meeting House on Main Street.

The citizens group unveiled the first phase of a study on the cost of village government -- in response to a planned petition drive aimed at getting dissolution on the ballot in Williamsville.

Victor L. Paquet, an associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at the University at Buffalo, and two graduate students found that village residents, on average, pay $170 more per year in taxes, when special districts and sewer rates were factored into the equation.

Paquet and the students compared 109 single-family homes in the village with homes of the same assessment in the town.

The mean value of the homes studied was $159,000.

Village residents paid $2,517 for general town tax, library, village, sewer and other fees -- about 7 percent more than
the $2,347 on average paid in the town.

But government downsizing advocate Kevin P. Gaughan, who expects a petition drive for the dissolution of the village government in Williamsville to be launched soon, said the study's findings were suspect.

"It's just wrong," Gaughan said. "The bottom line is, . . . this report contradicts every previous report on the cost of Williamsville government."

The previous studies, based on data from the state Office of Real Property Tax Services, indicated that village government adds $525 to $575 per year to the average Williamsville homeowners' tax bill, Gaughan said.

The timing of the report -- released the same day it became easier for New Yorkers to force a vote on whether to dissolve a village -- suggested that members of the citizens group were trying to discourage residents "from deciding the matter in a public vote," he added.

Organizers of Sunday's meeting insisted that this wasn't the case.

"We hope that whatever decision you make, you make it based on good information," Christopher J. Duquin, a member of the citizens group, said to residents who showed up for about an hour.

However, Duquin also asked anyone in the audience who might be seeking signatures for the dissolution petition to be honest with potential signers about its purpose. And a flier distributed by the Citizen Study Group warns residents about petitioners who ask for signatures and say the petition is to save taxes or increase efficiency.

The new state law, adopted last summer, requires signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in a particular village to force a dissolution vote. Under the old law, 33 percent of registered voters needed to sign a petition.

The village has roughly 5,000 residents and 3,100 registered voters.

Mackowiak-Harvey hopes the issue never gets to the ballot.

If Amherst ends up taking over the functions of Williamsville government, the village will suffer, she said.

"I think we'll see the quality of life here changing and a lot of houses going up for sale," she said.

Gaughan said Williamsville's charm emanates from its citizens, not its government.

"You don't need a government to create a successful community," he said. "If you look closely at Williamsville, that which renders it unique is more a citizen effort than a government one."

Paquet said he expected to complete a fuller report within five to six weeks, looking at the potential effects of voting to dissolve the village government and analyzing how services such as refuse collection, parks maintenance and beautification efforts would be affected.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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