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Chemung County Officials Propose Cooperation, But With A Catch

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Christina Bruner-Sonsire

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The Chemung County Legislature’s meeting on April 9, 2018, was far from mundane.

What appeared on the face of the agenda to be a typical meeting of the full legislature, where most issues have been ironed out in committees ahead of time, instead began with a nearly hour-long presentation by Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli.

One of the purposes for Santulli’s presentation was a proposal by him and Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen for the re-creation of a Council of Governments, an inter-municipal body that existed more than a decade ago to help encourage and facilitate cooperation among elected officials and other local leaders from Chemung County’s various municipalities.

 

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Santulli’s proposal is ostensibly a good thing, as increased governmental cooperation is something our community desperately needs. In fact, re-creating a Council of Governments is something I have written and spoken about on numerous occasions over the past six months.

In an Op-Ed published in the Star Gazette on February 2, 2018, entitled “Cooperation is Crucial for Solving Elmira’s Fiscal Crisis“, I wrote:

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Previously, a group called the “Council of Governments,” consisting of local elected officials from all levels of government across Chemung County, existed to deal with major issues like this. What happened to that group? Maybe it’s time to resurrect it so that all stakeholders have equal standing to voice their concerns and offer collective solutions. Could there be a better time to do this?

I made a similar suggestion in Chemung County Matters blog post from March 8, 2018, called “Economic Issues Spur Interest in Local Government“:

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With respect to cooperation, we need to find ways to solicit genuine input from all levels and all types of government. Some of the issues that are certain to be discussed in coming years – further municipal consolidation, sales tax distribution, countywide public safety (i.e. police and/or fire) agencies – affect everyone who lives in Chemung County.

Many years ago there was a group called the Council of Governments. It included representatives from county government, city government, town and village boards, school boards, the library district, etc. Unfortunately that group no longer exists, nor does the cooperative spirit it fostered. Bringing back COG or something similar could be a great first step toward big-picture thinking on these matters.

 

The re-creation of a Council of Governments is without question a necessary step toward fostering the cooperative spirit we need to allow our community to flourish.

However, tonight’s proposal unfortunately came with a catch.

Unlike nearby counties that utilize their Councils of Governments for the sole purpose of cooperation (the mission of Schuyler County’s council is to “provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for increased efficiency, fiscal responsibility, and improved quality of government services”, and the Tompkins County’s council is “organized to provide a forum for discussion and negotiation leading to agreements for more efficient and fiscally responsible delivery of government services), the version proposed by Santulli includes numerous barriers to participation and a set of fixed rules municipal leaders must accept in order to come on board.

At the onset, Santulli stated tonight that leaders from the City of Elmira will not be invited to participate. This aspect alone is enough to render the plan flawed, as cooperation among county and city leaders is one of the things our community needs most. Excluding Elmira – our county seat and the center of our community – from participating in county-wide governorship reveals that this plan is unlikely to succeed.

Moreover, the proposal sets forth a number “rules”, as Santulli calls them, that participants must agree to in order to participate. Some of the requirements regarding financial transparency and public disclosure of municipal financial statements make a lot of sense and are not likely to be met with substantial pushback.

However, other rules involve specific governing decisions such as the way to fund capital projects or to insure against financial calamity – things that arguably fall squarely within the discretion of elected municipal leaders rather than county officials. This top-down approach must be contrasted with Tompkins County’s Council of Governments, a group that has produced a long list of cooperative initiatives described here.

Although the suggested participatory rules may be based on sound economic rationale, leading off a proposal for cooperation with things potential members must do or agree to in order to partake is a tough way to start out.

Chemung County has a lot of great things afoot right now, yet it is apparent that many others demand our immediate attention. Elmira’s fiscal crisis, ownership of the Arena and the increasing pressure on many towns and villages to do more with less are not going to simply go away. Instead, these issues require genuine leadership and cooperation from all levels of government. Nothing less will do.

This is a video clip of some of Tom Santulli’s remarks at the April 9th meeting. Discussion of the Council of Governments begins around 6:35. But, the entire clip is important, as it demonstrates why fostering true cooperation may be a lot more challenging than it sounds.

 

Christina Bruner-Sonsire is a local attorney and candidate for Chemung County Legislature

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