Throughout the past two weeks, a number of community leaders along with candidates for local office have weighed in on Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli’s recent proposal to create a Council of Governments (COG.)

Dubbed the “Municipal Fiscal Transparency and Tax Stabilization Plan,” Santulli’s initiative calls for creating a body with representation from local municipalities in order to foster greater financial openness and provide an emergency fund that can be accessed if municipal leaders follow certain rules.

The idea for a COG is not new. Many New York counties have COGs, and Chemung County had one until roughly a decade ago.

What is new about this proposal is that its goal is not merely the promotion of cooperation.

Unlike nearby counties that utilize their COGs for that purpose alone (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 is centered around the emergency fund and the rules for accessing it.

My perspective

I have been vocal about the need for a COG for many months. I view it as a vehicle for bringing community leaders to the table to talk about issues and, hopefully, find solutions that are beneficial for our community. When leaders sit face to face with each other and are forced to interact, many issues can be avoided. Links to what I have written on this topic can be found here and here.

Simply clicking through the websites from Schuyler and Tompkins County (linked above) shows how valuable an organization can be. Neither of these COGs seek to control how municipalities or other political entities do business, but instead provide a forum for leaders to work together for the common good of their constituents.

Chemung County Executive’s Presentations

When I attended the Chemung County Legislature’s meeting on April 9, 2018, I was very surprised at what I heard.

At the onset, the meeting’s agenda did not reference anything about a proposal for a COG. However, as Mr. Santulli began to speak and I realized what he was proposing, I decided to record his presentation so that I could be as accurate as possible if I decided to write a blog post about it:

Notably, Santulli stated between 6:35 and 7:00 in the video this proposal was for “everybody outside the city” and that “the city will not be included in this.” Additionally, beginning at 7:28 Santulli stated there would be a set of “rules”, and he went on to describe what they would be.

Concerned that this proposal was for a quasi-Council of Governments and arguably not in the best interest of many people living in Chemung County, I wrote a blog post and  Op-Ed so that citizens would at least have a chance to learn about what was said.

Santulli held a press conference on April 16th, the day after my Op-Ed was published. I attended, and was enthused to see him back off from some of the more controversial parts of the proposal, including the exclusion of the city from the COG. Information about what was presented at the press conference can be found here and here.

The County Treasurer’s Opinion

However, I am perplexed by an Op-Ed written by County Treasurer Joe Sartori that appeared on the Star Gazette’s website today.

Entitled “Facts about Council of Governments Plan,” Sartori seems to have one objective: attacking my credibility. This type of behavior flies in the face of a discussion about cooperation, and is exactly what turns many people off to government altogether.

Sartori starts his piece by quoting Mark Twain.  “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Ironically, a comparison of what Sartori wrote to the facts is precisely what is warranted here.

Comparison #1

SARTORI: “In her recent Your Turn piece, Christina Sonsire tells the story that the City of Elmira would not be allowed to participate in the proposed council of governments. The fact is that all municipal governments, including the city, would be encouraged to join with no strings. The city would not be eligible to participate in the proposed tax stabilization program because the county is already providing more than $3.5 million in annual support to the city, and there are proposals to increase that figure.”

FACT: The statements from Santulli in the video embedded above are unequivocal. Any reasonable person in attendance would have concluded that the city was excluded.

Comparison #2

SARTORI: “Mrs. Sonsire advances the story that the Town of Horseheads had to levy a property tax for the first time in 30 years. The fact is the town raised more than $1.9 million in property taxes to cover a loss of no more than $900,000 in sales tax revenue. Further, at the end of 2016, the town had almost 50 percent of its annual expenditures, your tax dollars, held in reserve. What that means is they could go six months without collecting a dime in revenue and still pay all of their bills. How many county taxpayers can make that claim?”

FACT: It is undisputed that Horseheads levied a tax in 2016 for the first time in 30 years. According to quotes in the Star Gazette from Town Supervisor Mike Edwards, “It was a difficult but necessary move for the town board to approve the property tax. We always had the revenue. Sales tax was there, and we always had a good fund balance over 30 years. We had no debt. We still have no debt, but the revenue side is dropping. It’s because of the redistribution of sales tax that the county did, as well as sales tax has dropped off a little. Sales tax is a major portion of everyone’s budget.”

Comparison #3

SARTORI: “She accepts the story that the Town of Chemung had to lay off its entire highway department because of lost sales tax revenue. The fact is the Town of Chemung had over 60 percent of its annual expenditures held in reserve at the end of 2016. The annual cost for the employees is far smaller.”

FACT: I have not mentioned anything about the connection between sales tax loss and the Town of Chemung’s layoffs because I do not know enough about that aspect of the issue yet. What I stated in my Op-Ed is that “the Town of Chemung laid off its entire highway department, citing lack of adequate funds.”  This, too, is undisputed.

Comparison #4

SARTORI: “She accepts the story that the Town of Southport may have to raise taxes in the near future. The fact is the Town of Southport, to its credit, has reduced taxes for 11 straight years and still had almost 78 percent of its annual expenditures held in reserve at the end of 2016.”

FACT: Again, this is undisputed according to quotes from Town Supervisor David Sheen, who said Southport will likely have to raise taxes in the near future to make up for the loss of sales tax dollars. “The next two years of reporting will tell the actual end result of this sales tax redistribution plan,” Sheen cautioned.

Sartori concludes by stating that I am “correct when (I say) that local municipal spending decisions belong to local elected officials. However, if those local elected officials choose to behave in a manner that is not in the best interest of the taxpayers, then county officials have an obligation to point this out.”

There is some truth in this, and encouraging municipal leaders to be as transparent as possible with their finances is a good thing and unlikely to be met with much push back.

But, the county’s proposal goes much further than this. It attempts to tell municipal leaders how to do business.

If the residents of the municipalities located in Chemung County are unhappy with their leaders, they have a simple solution – elect new ones. It is not the county’s job to dictate how other elected officials must govern. If that is the case, why bother having municipalities at all?

It should be noted that this is the second time Sartori has done something of this nature. Last December he wrote an Op-Ed entitled “Chemung County is planning for future” wherein he condemned Anthony Pucci, a candidate for County Legislature in the 1st District, for raising questions about the county’s fiscal health.

Sartori’s Op-Eds truly epitomize what is wrong in our community, and why the need for new leadership at the county level is so critical.

Sheriff Moss’ Thoughts

Finally, Sheriff Chris Moss, a candidate for county executive, weighed in on this matter as well. In an Op-Ed entitled “We don’t need a county council plan,” Moss argues the entire idea for a COG should be rejected.

Although Moss lays out a good argument about why the county’s proposal is flawed, I disagree on his outright disregard for a COG.

The bottom line is that we need to find a way to start cooperating – now. The way we have been doing business is clearly not working. Is the re-creation of a genuine COG a good idea? I think so, but there are undoubtedly lots of other ways to go about it as well.

If nothing else, this issue has started a dialogue on a topic that is really important. Please consider joining the conversation, by commenting on this blog, posting on social media, writing a letter to the editor or Op-Ed, attending county legislature meetings, or by simply talking to each other.

People are paying attention, and this is bound to lead to something good.

Christina Sonsire