By HEATHER NELLIS
FONDA -- Montgomery County Legislature Chairman Thomas Quackenbush has a challenge for Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Make Montgomery County a model of consolidation.
During a visit with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer at the Old County Courthouse Wednesday, Quackenbush said he's calling on Cuomo to change the focus of consolidation efforts.
Cuomo's executive budget released this week includes $39 million for grants to encourage municipal consolidations, and regional services and tax credits for residents of local governments that fully dissolve or consolidate.
Instead of waving carrots in front of officials' noses, though, Quackenbush thinks Cuomo should send in teams to show the county how it's done.
"The governor is committed to help, but I want to take it a step further," Quackenbush said. "We're not looking for grants to study how it can be done -- we want someone to come in and show us how to do it."
"Use us as your model," Quackenbush continued. "Let us be your guinea pig."
Cuomo's executive budget puts pressure on governments to consolidate. It calls for a freeze on property taxes for two years, subject to two conditions.
In 2014-15, the state will provide tax rebates to homeowners with qualifying incomes of $500,000 or less who live in a jurisdiction that stays within the property tax cap.
In order for their homeowners to get the tax credit in the second year, school districts and local governments must continue to stay within the tax cap, and must develop a plan for sharing or consolidating services, and eliminating duplication and overlap that generates savings equal to 3 percent of the tax levy within five years.
When these plans are fully implemented, local governments and school districts could provide property tax relief of up to $1 billion. The freeze will generate an average annual tax benefit of $354 for 2.8 million beneficiaries.
With 21 governments in Montgomery County (10 towns, 10 villages, one city), plus multiple counties at its boundaries considering its central location, Quackenbush said there's plenty of opportunities for consolidation.
Cuomo agrees. In his State of the State address earlier this month, the governor noted the state collects $40 billion annually from income taxes, and $50 billion annually from property taxes.
"Why are our property taxes so high? Because we have too many local governments, and we have had them for too long," Cuomo said in his address. "Ten thousand, five hundred local governments. These are towns, villages, fire district, water district, library, sewage district, one district just to count the other districts in case you missed a district. We have a proliferation of government that is exceedingly expensive and costly."
Representatives from Cuomo's press office did not return a call seeking comment.
But, Schumer said he supports the idea, and intends to use his clout to push it.
"I'm certainly going to bend the governor's ear about this," Schumer said, adding he will also work to get the county some expert opinions about the effort.
Since taking office Jan. 1, consolidation has been on the tips of several legislators' tongues. The possibility of countywide property assessment, police protection, and public works services have been raised in this month's committee meetings.
District 6 Legislator John Duchessi has also suggested the creation of a shared services committee to explore the potential revenue that could be generated from state incentives.
"It's going to be extremely important moving forward," Duchessi said earlier this month.