Lansing Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne and Councilwoman Katrina Binkewicz attended the first Vilage Trustees meeting of 2016 Monday.  LaVigne and Binkewicz, both newly elected, say they want to attend Village meetings regularly to improve the relationship between the municipalities, which have been under some strain in recent years.  The issue is taxes.  Mayor Donald Hartill charges that villagers are over-taxed, and has even threatened to separate the Village from the Town, while town officials have argued that merging the municipalities would save Village taxpayers money.  LaVigne says he hopes to forge stronger ties between the two municipalities.

lavignehartillbinkewicz 20160201Left to right: Town of Lansing Supervisor Ed LaVigne, Village of Lansing Mayor Donald Hartill, Town Councilwoman Katrina Binkewicz in the Village Hall Monday

"I hope this is the start of a much stronger and productive relationship," LaVigne  said.  "Along with my fellow board member Katrina Binkewicz I look forward to developing stronger relaptionships with you.  We represent you also.  I hope that our presence here will continue to strengthen that relationship."

It will need a good deal of strengthening.  Structurally the Village is an incorporated municipality within the Town.  Villagers, who pay both town and village property taxes, receive some services from the Village and others from the Town.  The amount Villagers pay and the amount of services they recieve from the Town has been a bone of contention for at least a half dozen years.

The question of how much town tax villagers should pay became a politial hot potato in 2009 when the Town asked the Village to pay actual snow plowing expenses of about $75,000 in 2009.  In the previous year the Village paid only $30,000 due to an old contract that used a formula for calculating plowing charges that was very advantageous to the Village.  In July Village officials decided they would not pay.  Instead they their Department of Public Works would plow own roads for less than the Town was asking.  That meant an initial outlay for equipment and road salt, and a $477,000 equipment storage garage.

That incident set Hartill on the war path, inspiring him to examine the Town budget line by line.  In October Hartill sent a letter to each Town Board member asking for tax relief for villagers.  Since then he has repeatedly approached two Supervisors for a response to his demand for lower Village taxes, but has been largely ignored.  Former Supervisor Scott Pinney suggested the Village merge with the Town to remove the addled layer of taxes villagers pay, saying it would save village residents money.  But Village officials claimed they could provide services for less than the town.

The Town's 2016 budgeet is $4.9 million, of which $1.83 was levied in property taxes this year.  Villagers paid an additional $455,341 in property taxes toward the $1.82 million Village budget.

Both town and village officials have admitted over the years that the current property tax arrangement is not an unusual one.  But as the issue continued to be ignored on the Town level, Hartill threatened secession.

New York law allows for municipalities to split or merge into 'coterminous town-villages'.  A coterminous town-village is both a town and a village at the same time.  Voters choose whether the new municipality will operate principally as a village or a town, and elects a new governing body.  At present there are only a handful of coterminus town-villages state-wide, including Harrison and Scarsdale.  Hartill lobbied locally and state-wide to generate a statewide interest in the problem, saying that every towwn and village in the state have the same problem.

Last November Hartill said he was very close to initiating a split.  He said he would give the new town government a chance to respond before deciding whether to begin coterminous proceedings.  That would mean forging a new relationship between the town and village governments that could mean tough consessions by both parties.

That new relationship appeared Monday to be off to a cordial start.  Hartill said he had met LaVigne earlier in the day when he went to the Town Hall to pay his taxes.  LaVigne noted that he knows some of the trustees and said he looked forward to getting to know all of them.  Over the past few years Village Trustee John O'Neill has become a fixture at Town Board meetings, answering questions for Town Board members as needed, and reporting back to Village trustees on town goings-on.

"I want to thank John for his attendance at Town Board meetings," Binkewicz told the Trustees.  "He has been leading the way to making this happen."

Village Trustee Gerry Monaghan has also reached out to various arms of the Town, working on joint projects with Town Historian Louise Bement, participating in the East Shore Festival of the Arts that is held annually in the Town Hall and Lansing Community Library, and encouraging villagers to take advantages of the town parks and rereation programs that their taxes help pay for.  But that is a hard sell because many villagers identify more with the City of Ithaca than with the Town, or even the Village of Lansing.  The conventional wisdom is that many village residents think they live in Ithaca, not surprising because their ZIP code and a large portion of the Village's school district is Ithaca's.

For his part, LaVigne has promised he would attend Village meetings to find areas of agreement between the two governments.  That may be a rocky road.  Both LaVigne and Hartill are fiscal conservatives.  LaVigne won his seat as Supervisor last November on a platform that promised less spending.  Hartill takes pride in keeping Villages taxes quite low.  But if the Village were to secede it would mean a major revenue loss for the Town.  That means that neither leader can entirely get what he wants.

"The Town would lose about a third of its income, which is provided by the villagers," Hartill said last November.  "That's a very drastic move, but, on the other hand, it does get attention."

And that would only be the beginning.  Federal aid to the Town would be less, and other grants and aid that are dependent on the size of the population would also be impacted.  The amount the Town would have to give up to satisfy Hartill would likely mean a significant dent in its budget.  In 2010 Hartill claimed villagers are subsidizing the township by about $600,000.

Will it be Secession or Concession?  Or more of the status quo?  It remains to be seen how much the municipal relationship between the Lansings will substantially improve.  And in a time when state officials are trying to encourage villages to merge back into their towns  to save taxpayers money by consolidating services, it is not clear that an attempt to convert the Village of Lansing to a coterminus municipality would be successful.  What is clear is that with O'Neill attending Town meetings and LaVigne and Binkewicz attending Village meetings, the lines of communication are more open.

"I hope we make progress," Hartill said Monday.  "That would be great."