Why does each municipality need its own building, zoning officer?
COPAKE–The more towns that share services, the cheaper it will be for each one.
That’s according to Glenn T. Smith, who currently serves as building inspector and zoning and code enforcement officer for three towns in Columbia County and is looking for more towns to get in on the savings.
Mr. Smith recently met with Copake Supervisor Jeff Nayer and Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin to present them with a proposal to join in sharing building inspector, code and zoning enforcement services along with Austerlitz, Canaan and Hillsdale, the three towns that Mr. Smith already serves.
In a phone interview last week, Mr. Smith, who is also a Town of Kinderhook councilman, told The Columbia Paper that his proposal would not mean the five towns would share his services alone, but rather a computer program he works with based on 5,500 parcels.
If Copake and Ancram opt in, Mr. Smith said another building inspector would be hired. Mr. Smith currently works with one clerk, Mary Davis in Austerlitz, who inputs new data into the system.
Each town gets the same amount of “face time” with Mr. Smith, who is able to access property records for each town while in the field.
The program also helps him keep a better handle on building department activity in each town, while the towns share program-related equipment; and the need for individual clerks in each municipality is eliminated.
“The program becomes cheaper and cheaper as more towns become involved. Costs come down for both the new and old towns at the same time providing a very much higher level of service,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Smith also noted the value of carrying his data base with him and being able “to kill two birds with one stone” by doing building inspections in the field while at the same time being on the lookout for zoning or code violations.
Currently, Mr. Smith is employed by and based in Austerlitz. The towns of Canaan and Hillsdale have intermunicipal agreements with Austerlitz under which they share in all the costs.
According to Canaan Supervisor Rick Keaveney, each town’s share is based on the number of parcels in the town. In Canaan there are 1,488 and Austerlitz and Hillsdale each also have about the same number, he said. Mr. Smith has office hours twice a week in Canaan; amounting to about three and a half hours in addition to the time he spends out in the field conducting inspections, Mr. Keaveney said. The first thing Mr. Smith did was scan all of Canaan’s records. He has everything in digital form, said Mr. Keveaney, noting that these files are available no matter where he is. So if he’s in Austerlitz and he gets a call about Canaan, he doesn’t have to run back to Canaan and start digging through the files, he has the information at his fingertips and all the computers are connected.
The shared intermunicipal agreement is good from a human resources perspective, the supervisor said, because it allows small towns to have an expert, qualified professional person on the job. One person wears all three hats: building inspector, and code and zoning enforcement officer, all positions that require state certification. Sharing the cost of one full-time person makes the situation even better because individually small towns can’t always find a qualified person at an affordable price.
For the additional cost of hiring Mr. Smith, who has been working for Canaan for two years, “the town gets a lot better service, and because Mr. Smith is so diligent, he has brought the town more revenue.” Mr. Keveaney estimates Canaan “has improved its situation by $4,000 annually.”
While he did not have the figures immediately available, Austerlitz Supervisor Jeff Braley said the town’s Building Department now pays for itself as opposed to being the drain the budget it once was.
In Hillsdale, original cost savings from the switch over to shared services two or three years ago amounted to in excess of $10,000, said Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer, who noted that the town was initially able to eliminate a clerk. Mr. Baer said he is “extremely supportive” of the program and would like to share services in many more areas if he could get other towns to agree to it. While he has heard concerns from other towns that involvement in a shared services program would result in reduced service, Mr. Baer said his experience “has been just the opposite.”
According to Supervisor Keveaney, Mr. Smith works out an annual budget and all three towns agree on it. Canaan makes monthly payments to Austerlitz for its share, while Hillsdale pays quarterly.
Supervisor Keveaney said the idea of sharing services with more towns and hiring another person to share the work with Mr. Smith “should save us even more money while we continue to receive the same amount of service.” Mr. Keveaney likened the agreement to the ongoing efforts of local towns to share and consolidate property assessment services.
Another incentive for the program is the availability of state grants for sharing services. Under the Local Government Efficiency (LGe) Program, the state “provides technical assistance and competitive grants to local governments for the development of projects that will achieve savings and improve municipal efficiency through shared services, cooperative agreements, mergers, consolidations and dissolutions,” according to the state Department of State website, www.dos.state.ny.us.
This program is part of the governor’s plan to reduce property taxes and shrink the size of government by helping local officials find innovative ways to drive efficiency through consolidation and reorganization. The LGe Program has $4 million, and municipalities can receive a maximum of $200,000 in cumulative funding, which includes up to $25,000 for planning. Applications are required to show how the project would result in savings.
The submission deadline for the LGe Grant is March 21 and applications are available on the state Department of State website www.dos.ny.gov/funding/. Prospective applicants can also obtain applications by calling 518 473-3355 or 1-800 367-8488.
After the February 24 meeting in Copake with Mr. Smith, Hillsdale Supervisor Art Baer, Kyle Wilber and Carl Ubacker from the state Office of Small Government Efficiency Programs, both Copake Supervisor Nayer and Ancram Supervisor Bassin told The Columbia Paper, they are reviewing the information presented by Mr. Smith. Mr. Nayer said he asked for additional information so he could determine the possible savings to his town and present the matter to the Town Board at an upcoming meeting.
Mr. Bassin said he is giving the proposal a “hard” look and has invited Mr. Smith the March 15 Town Board meeting. Asked what would become of the town’s current building inspector/zoning enforcement officer Edward Ferratto, Mr. Bassin said Mr. Ferratto was the one who initially brought the shared services idea to his attention. On the job in Ancram for the past nine years, Mr. Ferratto may well be “the most likely candidate” to fill the additional position should Copake and Ancram join in Mr. Smith’s shared services agreement. Mr. Ferratto is also the zoning enforcement officer in Copake.