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Brockport's fate is in voters' hands

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The Village of Brockport has had some spectacular fights over the years.

When the state wanted to close the Normal School in the 1930's, Brockport residents fought and convinced higher-ups to keep it open; what was once a teachers' school is now SUNY Brockport. The community also waged a high-profile, protracted campaign to get polluted lands cleaned up. And village officials battled with the towns of Sweden and Clarkson over fire services.

But right now, the village is in the middle of its most pressing conflict in years, and it concerns Brockport's very existence.

On May 24, Brockport voters will decide whether to dissolve the village government. Brockport is within the Town of Sweden.

"It is about taxes, no matter what anybody says," says Rhett King, a leader of One Brockport, the group that's advocating for dissolution. King submitted the petition which forced the vote.

Group members say that the village is a redundant layer of government and provides services already provided by the Town of Sweden and Monroe County; eliminating the village would save money, they say.

But it's not that simple.

With a population of 8,400, Brockport is Monroe County's largest village. Its canalside downtown bustles with shops, restaurants, bars, offices, and apartments.

The village is also home to SUNY Brockport, which brings in droves of people from outside of the village each day, including commuting students and members of the public who come to the campus for cultural events.

The village needs its own code enforcement and police because of its size, the college, and its concentration of rentals, says Mayor Margay Blackman, who opposes dissolution. And the village government is best suited to provide these services, she says.

Only Brockport residents get to vote on May 24; Sweden voters don't get a say, even though the town would have to provide services to village residents if the measure goes through. If voters decide to dissolve Brockport, the village government will develop a plan for continuing services, though Sweden doesn't have to follow it.

"Dissolution is not the solution," says Pro-Brockport member Jo Matela, who owns the Red Bird Cafe & Gift Shop on Main Street and is a former Brockport mayor. "This is not real tax reform. To have a law that one municipality votes to dissolve and the other one takes on the burden — because it will be a burden — and they have no say, it is totally ridiculous."

Brockport residents rejected dissolution in 2010 by a vote of 959 to 662, and dissolution opponents say that they are confident that they'll win again this time.

But pro-dissolution forces are confident, too. King says that eliminating the village government would lead to lower property taxes; Brockport's tax rate is the highest of all Monroe County villages.

Nobody's formally studied the potential savings, but King points to the police department as an example. The Brockport Police Department would in all likelihood cease to exist if dissolution goes through, saving about $1.5 million that is the BPD's annual budget, King says.

"These are tough times in the past 10 or 15 years with layoffs and consolidations and people that were making $30 an hour making $10 an hour," King says. "It's a different world for people. Some recover and some don't."

With successful dissolution votes in Macedon and Lyons, One Brockport sees reason to be encouraged this time around. And Macedon shows that just because village voters rejected dissolution in the past, doesn't mean that they'll always reject it.

Voters chose to dissolve the Wayne County village last year after two previous votes failed. The town had by that time taken over the Macedon police department and arranged for community-wide ambulance and fire coverage, so dissolution supporters argued that the village wasn't providing much in the way of major services anymore. Voters agreed.

But dissolution is a local decision. Each community that goes through it has its own issues, politics, dynamics, and grudges. Brockport has shed some services over the years: emergency dispatch is now handled by the countywide 911 service, for example, and ambulance and fire services are provided through districts. But Brockport still has a police department, and last year, a new village court started handling criminal, traffic, and code violation cases.

Brockport's a college community and rentals are something of an industry; more than half of the residential spaces in the village, from single-family houses to apartments, are rentals. And many are occupied by students.

The animosity between the village and some of its bigger landlords is a major source of strife in Brockport. Those tensions drove the 2010 vote and are a significant factor in this year's pending vote.

The friction stems from village rental and property maintenance regulations. The regulations limit the number of unrelated people who can live together in rentals, for example, and require landlords to register the properties. But some of the landlords say that the regulations go too far.

Officials and members of Pro-Brockport say that the village needs strong property codes with robust enforcement to ensure that the rental properties are safe. If voters dissolve the village, code enforcement will fall to Sweden, which could have trouble keeping up, they say.

And the village police force is necessary to make sure that the village has a safe, orderly environment for all who live there, they say. The Monroe County Sheriff's Office, which would take over policing duties, does a fine job, they say, but it simply can't compete with Brockport police in terms of presence and community focus.

Matela, the former mayor, says that dissolution supporters, a group that includes some of the landlords who have been at odds with the village, want to get rid of code enforcement and police so that they can operate with less oversight.

But King says that's wrong. The town is perfectly capable of providing code enforcement, and already deals with rental properties, including student apartments, outside of the village, he says.

And King and other One Brockport members say that the village would be served well by the sheriff's office. Dissolution opponents are mischaracterizing supporters' motives, King says.

"It's the fear," he says. "It's all they have."

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