SARANAC LAKE - State Sen. Betty Little cast doubt this week on the prospects of the village becoming a city, saying the chances are slim without the support of the three towns and two counties that overlap the village boundaries.
"They can try to become a city, but looking at the big picture, the likelihood of it seems remote," Little told the Enterprise Tuesday.
The Saranac Lake Area Government Restructuring Committee, made up of representatives of the village and the towns of Harrietstown, St. Armand and North Elba, issued a draft report last month that recommended the village pursue city status. The recommendation was the result of a year-long study that included a detailed fiscal, operational and legal analysis of several alternatives like village dissolution, creating a co-terminous town and village and the city option.
The committee has said that creation of a city would eliminate the overlapping of town governments inside the village, would let the city keep at least some of the sales tax Franklin and Essex counties get now, and would result in long-term savings for town and village taxpayers. It also would preserve Saranac Lake's identity, something committee members are leery of losing if the village is dissolved.
For the village to become a city, a city charter would have to be drafted and then introduced and approved by the state Legislature. That hasn't happened in New York state in 70 years.
Although she hadn't read the committee's report, Little said she's aware of how unique the political geography is in Saranac Lake and the challenges it has presented to the community.
But becoming a city is difficult to accomplish, Little said. Getting the support of the towns and the counties, which could lose property tax revenue and sales tax revenue, respectively, if Saranac Lake became a city, "might be unachievable," she said. Town and county support isn't required by law, but a "home rule" message from those communities supporting the city option is considered necessary to get a city charter through the Legislature.
Asked directly if she'd back a city of Saranac Lake charter, if that's what village leaders decided to pursue, Little said she would "certainly look at it with them."
"But I couldn't convince some of these towns to give up tax base they already have and force it on the rest of the residents either," she said. "I represent the towns and the counties as well. It's something that would have to be worked out, I imagine, through negotiation and compromise. "
Little said she understands that people in the village are "frustrated" because they're paying property taxes to the towns and getting few, if any, services in return, and because they have little representation on the county and town boards. But she said village elected officials, if they don't feel they're being represented, need to attend more county and town meetings and speak up.
She also said the towns need to become more involved in supporting village operations.
"I think what this has done, and this is good, is that it's brought to light how much of the property taxes the village is paying for those towns, and how little they're getting back for it," Little said. "I understand the village is concerned about their identity, but you can still maintain your village and give up a lot of your services. Since 25 percent of Harrietstown's tax base is in the village, they could be doing a lot more of the services for the entire village. I'll be interested in what this study has shown and why some of those things wouldn't work."
Little also said she'd like to see the village and towns work together more cooperatively and share services. Members of the committee, however, have said they didn't pick shared services as an option because past attempts to do so have been "failures."
If nothing else, Little said, the discussion "is bringing a lot of things to light, which I think is good."
"I think there's a way to continue to sit at the table and work things out and see where we can go," she said. "If the village continues to pursue the city thing, they certainly have every right to do that; I just wouldn't guarantee that it's going to happen."
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.