On this episode of Policy Outsider, we have Rockefeller Institute fellow Dr. Lisa Parshall to discuss the New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act and the effect it has had on village dissolutions. The episode highlights the Institute’s recent report on village dissolutions, which detailed the motivation behind New York State’s push to dissolve village governments.

Parshall discusses the effect the 2010 law has had on the rate of village dissolutions and what dissolution means for village residents are often reluctant to dissolve their villages. Their concerns include community identity and pride, the importance of municipal buildings and symbols, festivals and community celebrations, as well as the role of local emergency services.


Lisa Parshall, Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Read the Report:

Dissolving Village Government in New York State

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 00:05

    Suppose you are a resident in an incorporated village filled with a rich history and dedicated village services, such as its own police department or a community center that stages events for the public. Now, suppose you have the choice to maintain the incorporated status of the village and keep the services but pay more in taxes, or to dissolve the village, be absorbed by the town, and save money. What might you do? This is Policy Outsider from the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. Today we have Dr. Lisa Parshall, fellow at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, to discuss her report on Village Dissolution in New York State. Lisa looks at the community-level response to the dissolution debate, where she identifies some of the noneconomic reasons that village residents are often reluctant to dissolve.

    Alexander Morse 01:19

    Lisa is a professor of political science at Daemen College in Amherst, New York, specializing in politics, public law, and public policy. Lisa’s research interest is in municipal development and reorganization in New York State. She’s with us today to discuss her latest report, Dissolving Village Government in New York State. Lisa, thank you for being here today.

    Lisa Parshall 01:40

    Thank you for having me, Alex.

    Alexander Morse 01:41

    To get our listeners up to speed. What is village dissolution? Why is there a push to dissolve village governments?

    Lisa Parshall 01:49

    In a nutshell, villages are the only form of municipal government in New York State that can be incorporated and dissolved by a purely local act. That is by a vote of the residents who live there. In New York, we have four levels of government, county, towns, cities, and villages. Towns, cities, and villages are state municipal governments, all of which are general service providers. The functions of these have grown more similar over time. Towns started out as subdivisions inside their county. Cities and villages incorporated as population centers within the towns. The big difference, Alex, between a city and a village in New York is it’s not based on size. We actually have some villages that are bigger than most cities and a few cities that are smaller than some of our villages. The difference is after incorporation, villages remain part of the town, and the village residents vote in town elections and they pay town taxes. Whereas city residents do not. Under village law, which dates back to the 1840s, villages can be incorporated by a petition of the residents if they meet basic territorial population requirements, which are actually quite minimal. Village governments can also be dissolved by a petition and a vote of its residents. The reason there’s a push to dissolve villages, in particular, is there’s a belief New York just has too many governments and that these layers are contributing to the high property tax burden. While the Empowerment Act was passed in 2009, effective in 2010, it’s broader than village dissolution.

    Alexander Morse 03:17

    What is the Empowerment Act? How does it work?

    Lisa Parshall 03:21

    The Empowerment Act, otherwise known as the New New York Municipal Reorganization and Citizens Empowerment Act, was passed in 2009 at the urging of then Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. It became effective in March 2010. To change to our General Municipal Law in New York State that is designed to make consolidations and dissolutions that are initiated by citizens easier. It’s designed to open the pathway for citizens to compel local government reorganization and it does that in three ways. First, it lowered the petition requirements necessary to put this on the ballot, from 33 percent to 10 percent for larger communities. It shortens the length of the study process and puts mandatory timelines in place for what happens once a petition is filed. Then finally, it has facilitated the number of communities putting dissolution to a public vote. It has produced an uptick in the number of recent dissolutions and it provides two mechanisms. One is a board-initiated process. The other is the citizen-initiated process. The board-initiated process, the primary difference there is that when the board moves for dissolution or consolidation, a study will precede it being flipped to a public vote. In the citizen-initiated, the process is reversed. There is a vote prior to a study and that was done purposefully in order to ensure that elected officials couldn’t stymie the process at the study phase. Effectively what the Empowerment Act does is it empowers citizens to say we would like you to explore consolidation and dissolution as a mechanism of saving money, go forth and create a plan. The law spells out a timeline by which that has to happen and then be put to a public vote. One of the flaws of the law, if you will, is that the process it establishes becomes a point of discouragement for residents. Residents will often say, how can I possibly vote on dissolution before there is a study in place? This uncertainty becomes very powerful in the narrative debate. The law does provide, once a plan is finalized, a 45-day window for a permissive referendum where citizens who are opposed to dissolution can petition to force a revote. The law does allow for a second thought after the plan is created. But at that first referendum—do you want to dissolve or not—that becomes a big talking point in the debate. How can we vote on dissolution when there is not yet a plan in place?

    Alexander Morse 06:12

    What have the results been so far?

    Lisa Parshall 06:14

    In some ways the Empowerment Act has been successful, it’s increased the number of communities that are looking at village dissolution. It’s produced an uptick in the actual number of villages that have dissolved and it’s actually shortened the process. If you look at since 2010, there have been 41 votes on village dissolution, 17 of which have resulted in the decision of the village to dissolve. But basically what that means is that the Empowerment Act has been successful in making it easier for citizens to get dissolution to the ballot. But if you measure success as how often when they vote do the residents actually approved dissolution, the Empowerment Act is technically less successful than the previous law. Its win rate is 42 percent. Whereas under the previous law, 60 percent of those that went to a vote action were approved. Now, we put a big caveat in there because under the old law residents didn’t get to vote on it if the local elected officials weren’t supportive of it. Under the old law, the way the law worked, there was a study process that was mandatory before the citizens got to vote. What would happen is that often the local elected officials would stall that study process. So actually fewer dissolutions reached the ballot. When they did reach a ballot, they reached the ballot with more of a consensus of supportive local elected officials.

    Alexander Morse 07:40

    Would you say that the Empowerment Act in that sense has given power back to the people?

    Lisa Parshall 07:45

    It has. If you look at this, even a loss is a win in that sense, because it is up to the residents of the village to decide whether to keep their incorporation or terminate that incorporation and dissolve and turnover administration and functions to the town. That is something that the governor has said pretty consistently, he wants to leave it to the voters to decide. It is a decision of local act. He has however, I think with property tax caps, the Citizens Empowerment Tax Grant, the tax credit, he’s incentivized communities to consider dissolving. But at the end of the day, the mantra is, it’s up to the residents whether they want to dissolve or not.

     Alexander Morse 07:45

    Why are residents reluctant to dissolve?

    Lisa Parshall 07:48

    One of the things that interested me as a public policy scholar is that the law is really predicated on this idea that if you show citizens that there’s a possibility of saving money and lowering their property tax burden, that residents will vote to dissolve their communities. The law, again, made it easier for residents to force dissolution to a vote and effectively compel their local elected officials to say, “Look, we want to save taxes, we want to provide services more efficiently. Go forth and create a dissolution plan that will do that.” What I was seeing though is that in the actual public discourse and the debate is that residents who were reluctant to dissolve, they often would dismiss property tax savings, and make it less about whether we’re going to save on property taxes, or what’s my service provisions going to be, and they started turning to more, I would say, intangible arguments about community identity, pride, history. While the law is predicated on this idea, and the policymakers have this idea if you show residents financial savings, it will dissolve. The actual discourse over dissolution, very frequently residents were talking about things that were much more psychological attachment to their village than worrying about the actual savings. What I was seeing, for example, in 2010, in the first wave of these dissolutions that hit Western New York, is that in a fluid communities, you would see the residents say, “Well, we’re willing to pay the higher property tax rates for the amenities of living in the village.” They would point to things like community parades, festivals, beautification projects and say, “We’re not willing to give these up,” or “we’re willing to pay these higher taxes in order to retain this level of services.” In less affluent communities and even struggling ones, the incorporation was a symbol of survival. They would often say even if we have some savings, we’re worried about the loss of community identity. In some cases, it seemed to me that they saw dissolution as something that was a retrograde, even sometimes kin to municipal death, something to be resistant. Whether the community was affluent or struggling, the incorporation itself and all the symbols of the village—the municipal buildings, the police, the fire services, the parks, the festivals—are signs of identity that the residents are not willing to surrender, even if they’re facing property tax burdens.

    Alexander Morse 07:55

    I’ve always found that fascinating, the attachment people have to their communities and their community centers and people are so attached to their dedicated police service and fire departments. What happens to villages that lose these services?

    Lisa Parshall 11:25

    Well, if we can separate that out for a second, that’s something that, I think, even as a policy scholar, I didn’t quite understand until I started visiting more and more of these communities. You see how important the symbolism is—the signage, the buildings. We see some of these buildings sitting empty, you understand where people then feel that there’s something now that’s missing. That’s derelict. In small villages, in particular, the village hall serves a multiplicity of functions. It’s not only a seat of government, where you go for services. It’s where you may have community events or after-school programs. Very often these are located in the same space as things like the village library or the village court. These things become emblematic of the community itself, and having them go empty or have property turned over to the town or sold for the alleviation of village debt, people feel that very acutely as a loss. When you think about police and fire services, again, I would say they’re a twofold task. The first is symbolic. Even when we have parades or community days, the police and the firefighters are there. The iconography of the village is right there, blazoned on the side of the fire truck. These are important parts of the community identity. Very frequently, these are friends and neighbors. These are people that are known throughout the community. There is that feeling that dissolution is also unneighborly, and that they want not to hurt their friends and neighbors who are providing the services. Then there’s also the aspect, I think, of police and fire services, where people are just concerned about the service level. In some ways, when you look at police and fire services, these are indispensable services. There will be fire, there will be fire protection, there will be police protection, but people become very fearful that there will be a diminishment of these services once they have dissolved. They begin talking about things like response time. In some cases, you’ll see the hyperbole is quite stark, where people will say dissolving could literally cost you your life in terms of a longer response to a fire or police department.

    Alexander Morse 13:37

    Is there any evidence that that’s true?

    Lisa Parshall 13:40

    I think not. Again, these are indispensable services that will be provided by the town or the county in the case of village dissolution. But I do think that many of these diminishment of service arguments are overblown. Again, I recognize that the psychological attachment is there. In some cases, where we have seen administration of police go over to the town or the county, I have heard anecdotally residents say that actually they find the service delivery now to be more professional. In some ways, it’s less personalized, but more professional.

    Alexander Morse 14:13

    How do towns who have to absorb villages feel about the dissolution?

    Lisa Parshall 14:19

    Yes, what’s going on with the towns? Well, that’s interesting and it does depend somewhat case-by-case. In some dissolution cases, there’s acrimonious relationships between the village and the town, and that will contribute to a reluctance to dissolve. With town administrations, town supervisors and town officials, they very often will remain on the sidelines of dissolution. Remember that village voters or town voters no matter what, but when the village dissolves, the property and administration of the village will transfer to the town. The interesting thing about village dissolution is that it is up to the village residents to dissolve and the creation of a dissolution plan is driven by the village, with the involvement of the town if they choose. But the actual implementation of that plan will be by the town once it takes over administration. In other words, the village dissolution study proposes, but the town actually disposes in the implementation. Sometimes village residents may be reluctant to dissolve because they don’t necessarily trust that the town is going to implement the dissolution plan as it was laid out. What I have seen again, anecdotally is that when the town officials are involved, it can often assuage citizen concerns. When town officials give assurances to village residents that if this happens, we will take care of these services that goes a long, long way in alleviating some of the concerns that village residents have. The towns can be leery, town officials, you can think of it almost as an evolving of some of the problems and the challenges that were facing the village now will become the burden of the town to administer. In many cases, the dissolution studies will show an alleviation or a decrease in property tax burden for the residents of the former village sometimes accompanied by a small uptick in the town outside the village tax burden. Sometimes you’ll have town outside of village residents reluctant or unhappy about the prospect of dissolution because they fear they already are or will be subsidizing the village. But town outside the village voters and dissolution don’t have a say in whether the dissolution carries forward or not. There are definitely frictions in many cases between the village and the town and concerns about what happens when village affairs become administered by the town.

    Alexander Morse 16:57

    I’d like to return back to the emergency services, what happens to displaced personnel if those services are consolidated or dissolved?

    Lisa Parshall 17:06

    In some cases, there will be an elimination of personnel. Of course, you’re going to lose your village mayor and your village trustees. But in cases where the village is heavily populated or requires a lot of services, sometimes the town can absorb those, but very frequently the town will have to take on former village employees. This becomes a trade-off. If you think about the buckets of savings that you can get out of dissolution, wages and salaries are one of them. But that’s going to be offset by the legacy cost of the former village employees, those don’t go away and any transfer personnel that needs to go over to the town in order to accommodate the level of services that the village requires. In some cases, there will be people who will lose their jobs. When you’re talking about police consolidation, village police moving into town police that become issues of unionization and seniority and who gets hired and who doesn’t. These can become quite messy and complicated.

    Alexander Morse 18:04

    You can read more of Lisa’s report on our website at www.rockinst.org. Lisa, thank you for joining us today.

    Lisa Parshall 18:17

    Thank you so much Alex.

    Alexander Morse 18:18

    I’d like to say thanks again to Dr. Lisa Parshall for taking time to discuss what village dissolution means for residents and their communities. As always, you can find Lisa’s research and more on our website and rockinst.org. We can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at RockefellerInst. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Kyle Adams 19:02

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State in the nation. Learn more at rockinst.org or by following at RockefellerInst on social media. Have a questions, comments, or ideas? Email us at [email protected].

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