It may take a village to raise a child, but what does it take to put down a village?
Voters rejected efforts to dissolve village governments in 60 percent of the 47 villages in New York State where referendums have been held during the past eight years.
If that history is indicative, the village of Depew is more likely to survive than not when its 15,000 residents go to the polls to decide its future in less than a month.
Since 2008, residents of 28 villages have ultimately voted against dissolving, while 19 voted to abolish their village governments, according to records from the New York State Conference of Mayors. In some villages there were multiple votes held.
For advocates of government consolidation, it has become much easier to get a village elimination referendum on the ballot since the state's Village Law was amended in 2010 – fewer signatures are required now. But it appears it's become even harder for those advocates to win those votes.
There's been 41 such votes since the new law took effect in March 2010. Only 15 votes favored dissolution.
In contrast, there's a healthy smattering of villages saying "No Thank You" to dissolution, including western New York municipalities such as Brockport, Sloan, Williamsville, Lakewood, Cuba, Farnham, Wilson and Medina.
The latest community to have a showdown over dissolution is the tiny Chautauqua County Village of Sherman, with about 730 residents. In Sherman, it was a nail-biter: 117 voted against dissolution and 115 favored it, after absentee ballots were counted on Dec. 27. So Sherman will remain a village, and not be absorbed into the Town of Sherman.
Just last month, the Suffolk County village of Mastic Beach, however, voted to dissolve itself just six years after it was incorporated as a village.
Depew's turn is next. Residents there will cast their vote in a Jan. 17 referendum on the fate of the 124-year-old village. At just under five square miles, Depew has a complicating factor since it straddles two towns, and the towns need to figure out how each of them would handle absorbing the village if it came down to that.
There’s been very little information provided to the public by the village or the towns of Lancaster or Cheektowaga about any potential cost savings for Depew residents if the village is eliminated.
But the Town of Cheektowaga Facebook page on Dec. 12 posted a statement inferring residents could enjoy a tax savings of at least 48 percent if the village government is erased.
A grassroots petition effort last summer by former Depew Village Clerk Joan M. Priebe and Irvine G. Reinig II succeeded in getting a referendum on the ballot. But the groundswell of resulting opposition continues to mount. Lawn signs advocating saving Depew are just as common as holiday decorations.
The Friends of Depew group fighting to "save" the village has knocked on the doors of upward of 7,000 homes of registered voters to drive home its points. "From what I'm hearing, an overwhelming number of people say they will vote 'no,' " said Depew Fire Chief Scott Wegst, an active member of the group. "We don't see where the savings is. Neither town has come out to tell us if they will provide the services currently provided by the village."
Nearly 1,400 lawn signs have been distributed by the group – some of them newly ordered and others donated by the villages of Williamsville and Sloan, leftovers from anti-dissolution campaigns there, Wegst said.
A website run by another anti-dissolution group, KeepDepew.com, emerged in the last month.
The Village Preservation Party of Depew, backed by residents as well as former village leaders voted out of office in the 2015 election, also is campaigning hard to preserve village government. "It's all about the services. The services are overwhelming," said Jules Pecora, party chairman and former deputy mayor and village trustee, who has been handing out pamphlets in a door-to-door campaign. "People don't mind paying a few extra dollars to keep their services. That's the heartbeat I hear out there. "
The pro-dissolution movement in Depew has been rather silent in recent months, Wegst said.
Priebe, who pushed hard for the referendum, disagreed. "The firemen are afraid of losing their little playground at the fire halls. It's the absolute truth," she said. "We're not going to retreat. Information will be going out to the whole village. When our information goes out, then people can decide what to do."
Despite critics accusing the referendum petition of being misleading, Priebe said that is not the case. “The other side does not know what to do. They’re waiting to get on Facebook to react. I’m above that,” she said. "Do we need a village government? No. You'll still live in Depew, N.Y., and go to the same schools."
[Related: Depew divided over dissolution]
Pro-dissolution advocate Daniel Beutler, a 23-year resident, said the debate is rooted in village employees trying to protect their jobs. "They have the gravy," he said. "As village residents, we cannot afford village employees who have been working without contracts for years. As soon as they get a contract, it will cost us more money. The friends and family club has to be stopped, and that includes the firemen."
Wade Beltramo, general counsel for NYCOM, said he is not surprised by the amount of opposition to dissolution in votes across the state.
The way the law now is structured, voters in villages across New York first vote "their gut" without any factual information detailing the actual impact on their taxes or government services. The village prepares a plan after the fact if residents vote for dissolution. Before 2010, a municipal plan first had to be prepared and voted on for the public to review before any vote occurred.
"We surveyed communities a few years ago, and time and again, people say, 'Hey, this is backward. It's putting the cart before the horse,' " Beltramo said. "You have to vote before you have answers to what will happen."
"It results in an uninformed vote. You have no answers about what is going to happen with services, how they will be provided, or what the taxes will be," Beltramo said. That explains, he said, why so many villages have voted against dissolution. "There were too many unanswered questions and people were voting for the status quo. There was certainty in that.”
Villages that voted to dissolve since 2008:
Place, population, effective year it dissolves
- Pike, 382, 2009
- Limestone, 411, 2010
- Randolph, 1,316, 2011
- East Randolph, 630, 2011
- Perrysburg, 408, 2011
- Seneca Falls, 6,861, 2011
- Edwards, 439, 2012
- Altmar, 351, 2012
- Keeseville, 1,815, 2014 (voted twice to dissolve)
- Bridgewater, 470, 2014
- Lyons, 3,619, 2015 (voted twice to dissolve)
- Salem, 946, 2015
- Prospect, 291, 2015
- Hermon, 422, 2016
- Macedon, 1,523, 2017 (voted twice against dissolving before vote to dissolve)
- Port Henry, 1,194, 2017 (voted against dissolving before two votes to dissolve)
- Forestville, 697
- Herrings, 90, 2017
- Mastic Beach, 15,000
Villages that voted against dissolving:
- Speculator, 348
- Johnson City, 15,535
- Candor, 851
- Schuylerville, 1,386
- Brockport, 8,103 (voted twice against dissolving)
- Sloan, 3,775
- Williamsville, 5,573
- Lakewood, 3,258
- Cuba, 1,633
- Farnham, 322
- Odessa, 617
- Whitesboro, 3,943
- Camillus, 1,213
- Potsdam, 9,428
- Leicester, 468
- Corinth, 2,559
- Malone, 5,911
- Chaumont, 624
- Painted Post, 1,809
- Middleburgh, 1,500
- Victory, 605
- Champlain, 1,101
- Richfield Springs, 1,264
- Greenwich, 1,777
- Wilson, 1,264
- Bloomingburg, 420
- Medina, 6,065
- Sherman, 730