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Many questions unanswered as Potsdam Village nears dissolution vote

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Next Tuesday, Potsdam village residents will vote on whether to dissolve the village. Potsdam isn't the only village to consider this--Budgets are tight and the state is offering incentives to eliminate layers of government.

Massena's looked into dissolution; and Waddington has decided not to pursue it for the moment. Malone's dissolution study committee met for the first time Wednesday night. Other villages in the region and state are moving through the process as well.

In Potsdam--a village of about 10,000 within a town of about 16,000-- arguments for and against dissolution turn on economic development, public safety, and of course, property taxes--but as Nora Flaherty reports, uncertainty may also play a very big role in how villagers vote:

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"Friends of Potsdam Village" Bob Josephson and Michele Arnold

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Nora Flaherty
Digital Editor, News

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Bob Josephson manages the Potsdam Food Coop, where on a bright Tuesday morning, customers are shopping for bulk grains, cupcakes and vegetables.

When Josephson and his wife moved into the village of Potsdam, they knew what they were doing:

“My wife and I came here after years of living in the country, it was a very intentional decision to move to this wonderful little village.”

Josephson says he’ll vote to save the village.

“I’ll be voting no, definitely.”

One thing on voters’ minds next week will—as always—be money. Steve Warr owns several businesses, is a village trustee, and served on the village dissolution study committee. He says the cost of living in the village is bad for residents:

“A lot of people move out of the village because there’s an extra layer of taxation.”

It is more expensive to live in the village: Villagers pay town and village property taxes; and they have to pay for their water, sewer and trash pickup.

It all adds up. And Warr says the extra layer of government is hard on business, too:

“New stores…need space. We can offer that. We have cheap power, water. Attracting potential jobs is a much, and the way the town and village operate, they don’t get along well, so any economic development here is difficult because of the differing views.”

So back in 2009 when the village first started exploring the idea of dissolving, it seemed relatively simple. The village and town formed a joint study committee to explore the details.

In April, before the committee’s plan was public—a telephone poll done by two SUNY Potsdam politics professors and their students, showed more than half of registered voters in the village supported dissolution.

But since then, it’s become apparent that things are more complicated than they seemed.

First, it makes sense that less government costs less money—but that’s not necessarily true. Michelle Arnold was on the dissolution study committee—now she’s with the anti-dissolution group “Friends of Potsdam Village”:

“Financially, there was not a great savings if we dissolve…I’d say the consensus in the committee, that was published in the report, was that it was a pretty efficiently run government already.”

Of course, costs would be spread among more people—which would, at least in theory, bring costs down for former villagers. But what if, once the village is gone, people in the town don’t want to pay for stuff they might not be using much?

Like the police—a huge issue in this discussion.  

Potsdam’s village police department accounts for about 40% of the 2012 budget. But that might not be an expense the town wants to take on. Marie Regan is Potsdam town supervisor—she was on the dissolution study committee as well, and says the police department is a major bone of contention:

“The people in the village limits need it the most, and the people outside the village have been happy to have the sheriff’s patrol taking care of their needs.”

The dissolution plan calls for the town to create its own police force—and there’s been talk of a police district. But there’s no guarantee either will happen. And Regan says that really worries people in the village:

“That when everybody sits down if dissolution occurs that some might say that $2 million or more annually you’re paying toward the police is too much for us to bear, and you should rely on a paid service, or sheriff’s patrol, or something I don’t know to describe but not what they have now. And I don’t think that would happen but you never know.”

And co-op manager Bob Josephson—who’s also working with “Friends of Potsdam Village”—says he and other villagers worry that without a village government, no one will be looking out for their interests:

“The town supervisor and the town board seem to consider the folks who live outside the village their primary constituency and I’m concerned the decisions they make will mostly benefit [them] without full regard for life in the village.”

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The SUNY Potsdam pollsters released a follow-up survey Wednesday. It shows support for dissolution has dropped about 25% since April—now, a majority of people aren’t in favor of it. Potsdam politics professor Robert Hinckley says it’s the unknowns—especially about the police force—that have driven the change:

“You know many people are ambivalent. They both believe local property taxes are unreasonable, and they place a high value on the services the village government provides. And I think what’s tipped them towards opposing them is the uncertainty about what services would be provided should the village dissolve.”

Businessman Steve Warr says there are no guarantees about what will happen after dissolution—but he’s confident the community can work things out:

“Potsdam is inhabited by 2 universities, a hospital, many smart people. I think if dissolution were to occur, and we put those minds together, we could solve the small problems that come from transferring from one governmental structure to another.”

If Potsdam does vote to dissolve, it will have thirteen months to complete the process—and the village will cease to exist as of January 1, 2013. I’m Nora Flaherty, NCPR news, Potsdam.

 

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