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Proposal to dissolve Village of Medina brews dissension

MEDINA – This little village 50 miles northeast of Buffalo began more than 180 years ago as a stopover for travelers passing through on the Erie Canal.

Today, it’s home to 6,000 people, some handsome 19th-century homes and buildings, and one contentious question: Should Medina remain a village or be dissolved?

Villages like Williamsville, Sloan and Farnham all faced the same issue in recent years. Now, it’s Medina’s turn.

Medina voters will go to the polls Jan. 20 to decide.

Mayor Andrew Meier and a group called One Medina back a ballot proposition to dissolve the village. One Medina also supports the merger of the towns of Ridgeway and Shelby, whose boundary runs through Medina in Orleans County.

Only the dissolution of the village is on the ballot, however, and by state law, only village residents will be allowed to vote.

And that’s a sticking point with those living outside Medina’s boundaries, because even the village’s figures show the dissolution would increase town taxes, especially for resident beyond the village lines.

“Everybody knows Medina has a tax problem,” Meier said.

If the village dissolves, property taxes for village residents will be cut by about $6 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or nearly $500 for a house assessed at $70,000.

That’s a reduction of 27 percent to 34 percent, depending on whether a house is in the Ridgeway portion or the Shelby portion of the village.

But those outside of the village would see their taxes rise by an estimated 46 percent in Ridgeway and 10 percent in Shelby.

Town supervisors Brian Napoli of Ridgeway and Merle “Skip” Draper of Shelby bitterly oppose the referendum and have announced a public meeting at 7 p.m. Jan. 14 in the Medina High School auditorium to talk about the proposal and answer questions.

“It think there are a lot of people who have questions,” said Todd Bensley, a Medina resident. “They’re used to a certain level of service. Are we still going to get that? And is it worth saving $200 not to have those services?”

Roots on the Erie Canal

Medina was incorporated in 1832, although why the name was chosen is lost in folklore, said Bensley, the village historian.

The place grew rather quickly from a stopover on the Erie Canal to a vibrant community that quarried Medina sandstone for over 100 years. As the 19th century wore on, the village became known for manufacturing furniture and iron works, Bensley said, and during its heyday in the early 1900s, the people of Medina fully expected their little community to become a city.

Over the years, Medina has overcome the loss of major employers, including the H.J. Heinz Co., which shuttered its pickle factory in the 1960s, and then Fisher-Price, which left in the 1990s.

But today, the village – with a population of 6,065 in 2010 – takes pride in its downtown district, which has enjoyed a rebirth along with the restoration of its 19th- and early 20th-century Medina sandstone and brick buildings that occupy several blocks of Main Street.

The debate over dissolution has been going on for months and included a public forum in May where roughly 200 people showed up but not a single speaker spoke in favor.

Bensley is among those against dissolution.

“As the village historian, you want the history of the community to continue on,” Bensley said. “As a private citizen, I just think there are too many questions unanswered yet.”

Opposition from the towns

Town supervisors Napoli and Draper say Meier’s tax figures assume the towns will absorb the village’s workers and services, and the towns won’t do so unless special districts matching the village’s boundaries are created.

Those districts would enable the two towns to tax the residents of the former village for their municipal debt, fire department, water and sewer services, street lights – but not the village police department. State law doesn’t allow special police districts.

In other words, the supervisors vowed that village residents will continue paying for most of what they’re paying for now, and town residents outside the village lines will not.

“You’re eliminating one level of government, but you’d have to create four or five more to maintain the same level of services,” Napoli said. “That’s what we’re telling people in the village: if you like your village services and you want to keep them, you should vote against dissolution and pay for them.”

“The plan calls for no reductions in the village work force or village services,” said Draper. “When you go into something with that commitment, the only alternative is to find someone else to pay.”

That someone would be the residents of Ridgeway and Shelby who live outside the village borders, and they won’t be allowed to vote in the referendum, which Napoli said angers many constituents he’s talked to.

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

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

The majority of signs around seem to be against the dissolution of Medina, Bensley said, but it’s hard to know who will turn out and vote.

“The people outside the village are adamantly opposed to dissolution," Draper said. “It’s a toss-up in the village.”

Napoli said non-village residents are not interested in paying for the Medina police force, though the dissolution plan assumes Ridgeway would take it over.

“We’re under no obligation to follow,” Napoli said of the plan. “From what we’re hearing from our residents outside the village, they don’t want it. They’re happy with the (Orleans County) Sheriff’s Department and the State Police.”

Pro-dissolution voice

Mayor Meier acknowledged the town tax increases look high in terms of percentages, but he said the rates are far lower to begin with. The 2014 village tax rate was $16.45 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, while the Ridgeway tax rates were $3.04 inside the village and $4.88 outside. Shelby’s rates were $3.35 in the village and $5.99 outside.

The savings from dissolution projected in a study by the Center for Governmental Research, the Rochester consultants who worked on the plan, are estimated at $277,000, or 2 percent of the three municipalities’ combined budgets, Draper said. The figure is 4 percent of the village budget.

“That’s a pretty small margin,” Napoli said. “When (people) see the facts, it doesn’t add up. It isn’t logical.”

“We’d like to have more savings, but there’s a commitment to retaining services,” Meier said.

If the village dissolves, something that might take two years to actually occur, the state will send the towns a total of $541,000 a year in additional state aid, he said. If the towns later merge, the state would send another $447,000 a year, Meier said.

“That’s hard to ignore, a million dollars every year,” Meier said.

That is not enough to sway the leaders from the two towns.

“We’ve come out with formal statements: We have no intention of merging,” Napoli said.

“At the present time, I think we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a plausible financial reason for doing it,” Ridgeway Councilman Jeffrey Toussaint said.

As for the extra state aid, he said, “That money is not guaranteed.”

The town officials accused Meier of failing to seriously discuss savings from shared services and of not providing cost data when the three leaders met in July, or afterward.

Meier blamed short staffing at the village for that.

“There’s no merit to the claim that I’m dragging my feet,” he said.

So what will happen at the polls Jan. 20?

“I think it’s going to go down,” Draper said.

“I believe the Village of Medina voters get it," Meier said. ‘I think it has a real shot at passing.”

email: Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this story.