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Responsiveness, efficiency of villages deemed worth the cost

Ask residents of any village in Western New York what they like about their community, and they’re quick to express feelings of identity and close-knit camaraderie, and cite more services and responsiveness of government.

In Williamsville, that means more than 100 volunteers who become involved with beautification, youth and recreation activities, and special events.

“The residents feel community, and that turns into commitment,” said Bea Slick, the volunteers’ coordinator whose daughter just settled in the village after years living in Charlotte, N.C.

“She grew up with all the amenities here, and she wanted that for her children,” Slick said.

But with those amenities often arrives a marginally higher tax bill, municipal data shows. Sometimes it’s hundreds of dollars more than a similar home in the town that contains the village.

Time and again, however, villagers have steadfastly voted down attempts to wipe their boundaries from the map.

Wilson, a 150-year-old village along the Lake Ontario shore in Niagara County, became the latest to vote to remain intact, when residents rejected dissolution last week by a vote of 222 to 209.

“I think the group that voted ‘no’ were afraid of the change that would occur,” said Mayor Bernard J. Leiker Jr., who retired to Wilson after 34 years as a teacher in Williamsville. “They came out with a very emotional approach that they would lose their identity.”

The Village of Medina, in Orleans County, is the only area village now studying dissolution, though discussion has centered mostly on perhaps sharing services with the towns of Shelby and Ridgeway. When the boards meet Tuesday, it is possible that they will take a look at a shared services proposal from the towns.

The New York Department of State says 11 villages have shut down since 2009, including Pike in Wyoming County and Limestone, Randolph, East Randolph and Perrysburg in Cattaraugus County. The largest village to dissolve was Seneca Falls, which ended its village government at the end of 2011.

But in 2010, voters in Williamsville, Sloan, Farnham, Lakewood, Cuba and Brockport overwhelmingly defeated dissolution.

The benefits of village living can be seen in the development of new urbanism, which promote village-type amenities and atmosphere within cities, said Orchard Park Mayor John B. Wilson.

“What they’re promoting is walkability and services of all kinds that are close together,” he said. “That’s what we have in villages; we’ve had it all along.”

Wilson said that many villages have lived through the “Gaughan wars,” the years when civic activist Kevin P. Gaughan was pushing dissolution of villages to save money. But residents have decided they are willing to pay a little extra for services such as sidewalk plowing and street cleaning, he said.

A Buffalo News analysis found a wide range in taxes on a house assessed at $80,000 in a village and its corresponding town. Most villages where the difference was about $1,000 – such as Hamburg, North Collins and Blasdell – operate their own Police Department.

In March 2010, a new law making it easier for public votes on dissolution went into effect. That vote now takes place before a cost-benefit study is conducted.

“The percentage of ‘yes’ to dissolution vote is much lower than it used to be because people don’t want to vote to dissolve their government until they understand what it means,” said Peter A. Baynes, executive director of the New York State Conference of Mayors, which advocates on behalf of cities and villages.

What dissolution means is a change in the way that services – snowplowing, garbage pickup, and fire and police, among others – are delivered and paid for, said Paul Bishop, senior associate at the Center for Government Research in Rochester, which has studied the issue for villages.

“The questions come down to shifting of costs and the shifting of services – who would provide the services afterwards?” he said. “Those are really the big questions that come up each and every time we look at this.”

Sense of community

Villages were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries when New York was a mostly rural state. They are the only level of government that can be created and dissolved by the residents.

Residents of more concentrated communities banded together to create additional services that far-flung towns couldn’t provide, such as night watch, sanitation and sidewalks, Bishop said.

Fast-forward to today, when some residents are concerned about the taxes they’re paying for those services and dissolution is seen as a way to achieve savings.

“In Western and upstate New York, the villages are generally inside one or two towns, and they’re receiving some services from the town, some services from the village,” Bishop said. “Your average resident doesn’t necessarily know who’s doing which for them. They have to pay a tax bill to each of them.”

In Blasdell, the difference in taxes between an $80,000 home in the village and one in the Town of Hamburg is $941, according to The News’ analysis.

Village Administrator Janet MacGregor Plarr said the question should not be, “Is the village charging too much?” Instead, she said, the question should be, “Is the town charging village residents too much for town services?” She said the village pays a portion of town taxes for services such as engineering and a financial consulting that do not necessarily benefit village residents directly.

Blasdell has Police, Fire and Recreation departments, she said.

“We also pick up large trash every single week; we do brush pickup weekly from April through October,” she said.

In Williamsville, an $80,000 home would actually pay $79 less than a home in the Town of Amherst. But $80,000 homes in Williamsville are rare. Homes at the average assessed value in the village can expect to pay $175 more.

At Williamsville’s Village ARTisans, Deb Steinbruckner’s boutique store on bustling Main Street that serves as an unofficial gathering place, a group of village boosters agreed that their active volunteer base improves the quality of life and contributes to the village’s charm.

“There’s so much community involvement,” Steinbruckner said. “There’s so much to do. It’s the best place to raise kids. Almost everything I do is in this one square mile.”

They praised the village mayor and trustees for working closely with the business association and residents.

“They’re always looking for the next good idea to make life in the village even better,” she said.

Deb Rogers and her husband moved to Williamsville from Pennsylvania 13 years ago, bought a historic home and had two children.

“We walk to the library, we walk to the parks,” she said. “We participate in the movie nights. It just seems like there’s a lot to do for young families.”

Longtime residents and village officials also report seeing an increasing number of people from outside the village – East Amherst, especially – who are choosing to abandon their “McMansions” to live in the village.

One homeowner recently paid about $400,000 for a prime house on tree-lined Oakgrove Drive, demolished it and is putting up a $500,000 house in its place – meaning he is willing to pay almost a million dollars to be in the village.

“I think people like to have a sense of community,” said Kim Addleman, a real estate agent in Williamsville. “Villages have a great mix of ages and people. They have history, so people can build off of something that’s been there in the past.”

‘Small-town feel’

“Quaint” may be the best word to describe the rows of well-maintained homes on shaded streets and mom-and-pop shops on and around Delaware Avenue in the Village of Kenmore.

With a population of about 15,300 in its 1.44 square miles, the village just north of the Buffalo city line works hard to preserve its character and identity as a family-friendly community.

“We wanted to be near the city but we wanted that small-town feel,” said Pat Christian, who moved to the village with her husband in 1990 to raise their children.

Now grown, the children could walk and bike to school, friends’ houses, piano lessons, dentist appointments and scout meetings, she said.

“I never felt like I had to put a bumper sticker on my car that said ‘Mom’s Taxi’ because I wasn’t running a taxi service,” she said. “It encouraged a certain independence in our children that we really liked.”

Police Chief Peter J. Breitnauer pointed to services as the main reason that people choose to live in villages like Kenmore. He cited 2- to 3-minute response times by the Fire Department, 2 minutes or less by police and public works that “tends to residents’ needs above and beyond what you find in bigger municipalities.”

There is a cost, of course, for that high level of services. Kenmore spent $2.75 million on its police force in a 2013-14 budget totaling almost $16.4 million. An $80,000 home’s property taxes are $729 more than a similar home in the Town of Tonawanda, The News’ analysis showed.

Despite loving the lifestyle, homeowners question why their property taxes must consistently rank among the highest in the country, said Melissa Foster, founder of the Kenmore Village Improvement Society and a 14-year resident.

“We’ve all been to other areas,” she said. “We see what their communities look like. They have services. They have libraries. They have schools. And yet they’re able to do all of this for so much less. Why?”

The society found that if the village dissolved, it could become a special taxing district for police, fire or other services and decrease, maintain or increase services depending on what residents want.

But in fact, four or five special taxing districts for services such as fire, water and sewer need to be created following a village’s vote to dissolve, Baynes said.

“The irony of dissolving villages is the efficiency argument,” he said. “I think it’s really opposite. Villages inherently are efficient in that they consolidate special districts into one district.”

The Kenmore society ended up opposing dissolution for one reason.

“There’s one thing that wouldn’t accompany dissolution,” Foster said, “and that is, direct and intimate representation by people who live within this 1.44 square miles.”

While elected officials can sometimes seem disconnected from constituents, the village has a mayor and five-member board who respond to residents’ concerns on a personal level unseen at any other level of government, said Trustee Katie Burd, who was elected in November.

“I feel a personal responsibility because it feels like I know everybody, and I want people to know me,” she said. “I do think it’s important to have that type of connection with your neighbors and people that serve in government.”

Village officials like to say they are the government that is closest to the people.

“We get back to people when they have problems,” Village of Hamburg Mayor Thomas J. Moses Sr. said. “They get an honest answer, and that means a lot to people.” and