Villages are often portrayed as idyllic hubs of small-town charm and traditional values. Everybody knows everybody else. Downtowns brim with small businesses. And residents and merchants pitch in to make the communities attractive and welcoming.
And that's how Mayor Marie Cramer describes the 1,500-person Village of Macedon in Wayne County, located a 10-minute drive east of Perinton.
When the village government could no longer afford to buy flowers for downtown, she says, a local greenhouse began donating them. And the public Butterfly Nature Trail near Erie Canal Lock 30 was established mostly through donations and volunteer work. "I think that's a good, viable thing we have in this community, because when things really need to get done, people will just come together and make sure it gets done," Cramer says.
But villages are also places where personal grudges and community conflicts churn, sometimes for generations. The Macedon village and town governments have long been at odds over police, fire, and ambulance services; village sewer plant operations and the village water system; and money.
And for the past few years, village residents have been caught up in a deep, bitter dispute over whether the village is even necessary. On June 10, Macedon residents will decide whether to dissolve the village — the third time they've voted on the matter since 2008.
Residents rejected dissolution 257 to 228 the first time. They shot it down again in 2010 by a margin of 295 to 199.
For members of the pro-dissolution group One Macedon, eliminating the village is about lowering taxes. An analysis by the Center for Governmental Research estimates that village residents could see a 40-percent tax cut by dissolving village government. (The village board commissioned CGR to do the analysis.)
"The only thing that's going to change is that bill we get in the mail each year," says One Macedon spokesperson Bill Murray.
Cramer agrees that dissolution would lower tax bills. But it would also destroy the community's morale, she says, and the savings would come at the expense of the village fire and ambulance services, as well as its Department of Public Works staff.
Cramer and the members of Macedon Village Pride, who oppose dissolution, also say that the community would lose out on festivals, community concerts, and family-friendly events organized and promoted through Village Hall.
Village officials also just finished a revitalization plan, which could be derailed by dissolution, Cramer says.
"In the long run, you have to look at what you pay taxes for," says John Cieslinski, co-owner of Books Etc. on West Main Street and a member of Macedon Village Pride. "Are you getting the quality from your tax dollars?"
All of New York's villages exist within towns. Essentially, they are an additional layer of government, though many village residents and officials resist that characterization.
Village residents can force a dissolution vote through a petition; they just have to collect signatures from 10 percent of the community's registered voters. Late last year, members of One Macedon submitted a petition that exceeded that threshold.
The petition process has led to dissolution votes in other villages across the region, with differing results. Last year, residents in the Village of Lyons approved dissolution. In 2010, Brockport voters rejected it.
Earlier this year, voters in the Orleans County village of Medina rejected a dissolution measure. That vote was initiated by the mayor and the village board.
Each of the votes has centered on promises of tax savings, often with the idea that villages can be eliminated while keeping important services. But that's not always how it works out. For example, some Lyons voters who backed dissolution are now upset that the town does not plan to keep the village police.
But as clichéd as it sounds, each village is different. Each dissolution vote has had its own set of issues and dynamics.
Brockport landlords helped instigate the dissolution vote in that village. They had clashed with village officials and police for years, mostly over code issues and enforcement. But dissolution opponents successfully questioned whether the lower taxes would justify the potential loss of services, including the police department.
Medina residents were concerned about police and fire services, too. And officials in the surrounding towns of Ridgeway and Shelby — Medina is split between the two — aggressively opposed dissolution. Because of the way services would have been divided, village residents would have seen a tax decrease while taxes in the towns would've gone up.
In Macedon, town residents would see a 12 percent tax decrease, according to the CGR analysis. The drop would be due to a state incentive meant to encourage government consolidation.
The 40 percent tax savings projected for Village of Macedon residents is atypical, says CGR Associate Principal Paul Bishop. In most villages, taxpayers can expect savings of about 15 percent, he says.
The Macedon calculation also has a few caveats. It includes special districts to preserve fire, sidewalk plowing, and brush pickup services, as well as street lights. Often, when villages dissolve, tax rates decrease but special districts are formed to maintain services — and that eats away at the savings.
The Town of Macedon took over police services from the village a few years ago, Bishop says. The town also has fire and ambulance services that already cover the village, he says, so the village departments can be eliminated.
Cramer says that's part of the village's problem. The town used to contract with the village for those services, but then it started an ambulance department and helped form a fire district. The moves hurt village finances, she says.
Dissolution supporters want the Wayne County Water and Sewer Authority to take over the village's water and sewer infrastructure. Both systems need upgrades, they say, and the authority is better suited to make those investments and to operate the systems. And the arrangement would end expensive, acrimonious legal proceedings between the town and village over the village sewer plant.
"Arguing over the sewer plant is so dumb because, let's face it, nobody cares who runs the sewer plant as long as the toilets flush," says One Macedon member Dennis Trovato.
But the village and town of Macedon haven't yet developed a plan for continuing village services, should voters choose dissolution. Under state law, town and village officials have 180 days after the vote to develop a plan. But the town also has no legal obligation to follow the plan.
"What people have to realize is once the village is gone, it's gone," Cramer says.