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Merge and meld?

Merge and meld?

Voters may seem to have squashed any thoughts of government consolidation last November, but cold, hard budget facts may force the issue back into public debate.

            Consolidation on a service level came up last week, for instance, at a City Council hearing on Mayor Bill Johnson's budget proposal. Patricia Malgieri, CEO of the Center for Governmental Research, said area governments need to look for more ways to consolidate services. "You need to be open to every consolidation or outsourcing opportunity," she said.

            "Consolidation can be at many different levels," Malgieri said in an interview later: the city and towns, towns and villages. Malgieri points to services such as building inspection that the city is providing to neighboring Brighton.

            "The city is on the cutting edge with the Town of Brighton," said Malgieri. "Are there other towns that might be ready to do that now with the city?"

            Malgieri suggests that city firefighters could supplement services in the suburbs --- which Rochester is doing now, on a limited basis, in Brighton. And, she said, with a new county executive and a new countyWater Authority head, this may be a good time to reconsider consolidation of the city and county water systems.

            "In this economic era, all governments are feeling fiscal strain," said Malgieri. "I think we need to be open to every option."

            Johnson, whose county-executive campaign was based in part on the need to study consolidation, agrees. The city has contract obligations for a specific level of staffing, he said, which could limit its ability to extend services into the suburbs. But, he said in an interview last week, "there may be some opportunities, and I would certainly be anxious to pursue it with adjacent towns."

            "I think there is an even greater opportunity," he said, "for the county to create a county-wide fire department, particularly given the shortages faced by volunteer fire departments."

            Johnson said he has discussed that issue with the Rump Group, an organization of business leaders that has urged a study of service consolidation. "Some volunteer fire departments just don't have enough staffing to get to the fires on time," said Johnson. "The Rochester fire department may be ideally situated to be the central core of a county-wide fire system."

            In her statement at the City Council budget hearing last week, Malgieri also raised the issue of police-service consolidation. Currently, the city and some towns have their own police departments, while other towns rely on the countywide Sheriff's Road Patrol. All county taxpayers finance the Road Patrol, whether or not they pay for a local police department.

            A county-wide police system, which voters rejected in the early 1980's, would be hard, Johnson said, because city and town residents have a strong emotional attachment to their own police forces. "But we're in an era now when you have towns and villages with budget problems, and police budgets are the highest cost centers," said Johnson. "There may be opportunity now."

About those schools

MonroeCounty has 18 different school districts, with their own superintendents, administrative staffs, food services, transportation systems, and maintenance staffs. But talk of consolidating school districts or school-district services brings a loud public outcry.

            In MonroeCounty, at least.

            In many other parts of the nation, countywide school districts are the norm. And school-district officials and community representatives in Broome and TiogaCounties are studying the possibility of having their 15 school districts share services.

            They've hired Rochester's Center for Governmental Research to study the issue: "everything from joint bus contracting, joint purchasing across school districts, purchasing of health insurance, maintenance of school buildings," says CGR's president and CEO, Patricia Malgieri.

            "Anything that every school district has to do can at least be investigated," she says. And, says Malgieri, "one of the options that we will be looking at is having them all consolidate into one school district."

            Malgieri says CGR will have a draft report of the Broome-Tioga study by the end of the year.

            And, she adds, community representatives in another county have inquired about a similar study.

            The requests, says Malgieri, are highly unusual. "People identify very closely with their school districts. We credit the Broome-Tioga area greatly with having the courage and foresight to say, 'We at least need to look at it and see whether there's any viable opportunity here.' It's very rare."

            Might there be such a discussion in MonroeCounty? "I don't see it happening anytime in the near future," says Malgieri.

Midtown housing?

At City Council's hearing on the city budget last week, Center for Governmental Research CEO Patricia Malgieri offered several suggestions for revitalizing the city. Among them: the city might consider acquiring MidtownPlaza by eminent domain and having it converted into housing.

            "Residential housing has been one of downtown Rochester's shining stars in recent years," she said in an interview later. Despite numerous proposals for reuse, Midtown continues to be vastly underutilized. "If nothing materializes soon," said Malgieri, "the city should look into securing that site by eminent domain."

            Midtown, she said, "is a key piece of property that would allow for large-scale residential development."

            But Mayor Bill Johnson calls a city take-over "a pie-in-the-sky idea."

            "You have to weigh the consequences and the cost," he says. "Under eminent domain, you have to pay fair market value for the property. That is a burden that this city can't assume. We have projects like street repairs, building repairs, equipment purchases, fire trucks, that we have delayed because we don't have the money in our capital budget."

            And even if the city came up with the money to acquire Midtown, he says, it would have to pay millions of dollars to demolish the building --- and then hope that a private developer would buy it.

            "We have to rely on the expertise of the private sector," says Johnson. And, he says, private developers are already building housing downtown. "They look at the market" and determine what's feasible, says Johnson, "and they don't ask for any public financing."