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The recent momentum in a few localities to “upsize” their town boards has reopened the public debate on the size of government – and that’s good. At least, that’s how the man who started the downsizing movement sees it.
Kevin Gaughan has offered to debate upsizing proponents on the issue of adding members to town boards. It’s an invitation that should be accepted.
West Seneca voters will decide next month whether to increase the Town Board from three to five members. Alden will also vote on whether to reverse course and return two members back to its Town Board.
West Seneca officials believe that because this is a presidential election year, sure to turn out more voters, they will get a true measure of how residents feel about the size of the Town Board. Gaughan feels the same way, and hopes all those voters will agree with him.
In either case, downsizing, which appeared to be a good idea a few years ago, is under fire.
Some board members say they work full-time hours for part-time salaries, and downsizing leaves them with even more work to do. Others complain that it is nearly impossible not to violate the state’s Open Meetings Law when there are only three board members. And, they say, it can be hard to reach a quorum for meetings.
Of course, Gaughan has an answer to the overwork criticism – allow department heads to do their jobs while town boards set policy. Citizen committees could offer a great deal of help, as well.
It all stems from the idea Gaughan began pushing years ago of asking towns to reduce the number of board members by two and for village governments to dissolve. Gaughan said Erie County has the highest concentration of politicians in U.S. government. Fully implemented, he says downsizing would have eliminated about 180 politicians, saving about $45 million a year. Instead, the efforts resulted in the downsizing of three county legislatures, six towns and one village, eliminating 26 elected officials and saving taxpayers $5.2 million per year.
West Seneca was the first town in which Gaughan used an obscure New York State town law he discovered that allows citizens to circulate a petition to cause a vote on the size and cost of their local government.
West Seneca Town Board members are the second-highest paid – at about $22,300 – of the 25 town governments in Erie County, and it is the fifth-largest town. On top of the salary, after serving eight years, board members receive lifetime pension and health care. Cutting two members would have an immediate impact on the town budget, and then save on long- term pension and health care costs.
Back in 2009, Gaughan found that there were 32 former West Seneca Town Board members receiving lifetime health care and retirement pensions. Every year local taxpayers have to come up with the money to pay the legacy costs for former Town Board members. And that’s before providing any services to town residents.
The downsizing advocate insists that by reducing the board to three members, voters reduce those legacy costs by 40 percent and the benefits over time will save taxpayers millions of dollars. That will take time to show, but time may not be on the side of those who advocate downsizing.
West Seneca will vote in three weeks, leaving little time for the downsizers to get their message across. Gaughan deserves a chance to make his case. If Town Board members don’t want to debate him, they should set up at least one public forum to make sure voters are making an informed choice.