The Essex County Board of Supervisors.
ELIZABETHTOWN — A little more than two decades ago, there was a groundswell of support in Essex County for switching from an 18-member board of supervisors to a five- or seven-member board of legislators.
Proponents pointed to a substantial cost savings to county taxpayers of as much as $250,000 a year and argued that legislators would be more apt to put county interests over those of a single municipality.
Armed with a petition signed by 1,700 county voters, a small but vocal group made up of Walter “Wally“ Huchro, Spencer “Spence” Egglefield, Ed Hatch and Gordon Davis succeeded in persuading county supervisors to place a question on the ballot in the Nov. 6, 1990 general election.
The question asked: “Should the Essex County Board of Supervisors appoint a Charter Commission for the purposes of replacing the Board of Supervisors with a County Legislature?”
Had the vote passed, the commission would have then made a recommendation to the board of supervisors, who would have had the ultimate decision of placing the change in the hands of the voters through a referendum.
Instead the effort fizzled, when voters, behind lobbying from town supervisors who opposed the change, voted 4,457 in favor to 7,234 against the move.
Faced with some of the most trying financial times in the county’s history, some officials are again saying that a cost analysis study should be done to determine if a legislature would be a more prudent governing body for the taxpayers of the county.
Reached for comment at his winter home in Florida, Huchro made it clear how he still stands on the issue.
“There is no doubt that a county legislature is a more accountable, more efficient system of government,” Huchro said. “Just look how the board is floundering right now, because no one is doing the county business — they all look out for what’s best for their towns, not what’s best for the county.”
Huchro, who served as Westport supervisor from 1968 to 1991 and also for five years as county administrator, gave a number of examples, from town supervisors each fighting to keep courthouses in their towns rather than centralize to the recent fight over privatizing the Horace Nye Nursing Home.
He said some supervisors simply could not vote in favor of privatization — even if they believed it was in the best interest of county taxpayers — because constituents in their respective communities did not support it.
“Take Moriah,” Huchro said. “Forty percent of the nursing home employees are from Moriah, so Tom (Scozzafava) has to vote in the best interest of his town, not the county. He can’t look at the big picture.”
Scozzafava voted against privatization.
Conversely, former Elizabethtown Supervisor Noel Merrihew voted in favor of privatization just before the general election in November. Many of his constituents also work at Horace Nye, and Merrihew’s vote to privatize could have been the catalyst behind him being voted out, Huchro said.
Complicating matters, Huchro said, is the weighted voted system used by the county, which gives greater voting power to supervisors with the most constituents.
A board of legislators would have equal voting power, he said.
“Right now you have three towns that can basically control everything that happens with just one other vote,” Huchro said.
The “Big Three” as Huchro called them, are the towns of Moriah, North Elba and Ticonderoga.
Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava was also on the board in 1990, and was one of the most vocal opponents of the changeover, arguing that a board of supervisors is able to better represent the needs of each town and the people they stand for.
Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava
He said during the 1990 proposal, Moriah residents didn’t like the fact that the town would be split in half, with two legislators representing the same town.
“People like having a single person to go to, having a town hall, a home base where they can come voice both town and county concerns, Scozzafava said.
The final tally from Moriah’s four voting districts in 1990 mirrored Scozzafava’s assessment, with 1,191 voting against the move and just 329 in favor.
Still, Huchro pointed out that seven of 18 Essex County’s towns voted in favor, and said many of those that voted against the move were fed misinformation from supervisors who were afraid of losing their jobs.
“They ran around telling people that the towns were going to lose their identity, when in reality they were just worried about losing their paycheck,” Huchro said.
Huchro said what many do not realize is that supervisors are paid salaries by both their towns and the county.
“They should be working just as hard for the county where they get their fringe benefits as they do for the town,” Huchro said. “And it just doesn’t happen.”
Scozzafava now says he’d support studying the idea again.
“Looking at the complexity today of town and county government, I would support looking at a board of legislators again,” Scozzafava said. “The reality is you get caught in the crossfire a lot. It is hard to represent both.”
Westport’s current Supervisor, Dan Connell, said he’d also most likely support studying a board of legislators, but said people should not be so quick to jump on the bandwagon simply because there may be a cost savings associated with it.
“First, and to me most importantly, if one looks at this as just the cost in salaries they are doing an injustice to a study of the two systems,” Connell noted.
Connell said there are many hidden cost benefits that come from supervisors representing their towns on the county board, such as shared services in areas like highway maintenance and grant writing.
“Other departments such as Social Services and the Health Department are in contact with town supervisors on an at least monthly bases,” Connell said. “This again in my opinion creates a higher level of service and helps eliminate some situations that might ‘fall through the cracks.’”
Franklin vs Essex County
Nearby Franklin County, which has a population of 51,579 compared to Essex County’s 39,302, moved to a seven-member board of legislators in 1970. The 19 towns in the county still are represented on the local level by part-time supervisors, who make a salary that ranges from a low of $5,000 to a high of $16,000.
Health insurance is offered to only one Franklin County supervisor, Larry Miller in Harrietstown.
The seven members of the Franklin County Board of Legislators receive $15,000 annually, plus health benefits and reimbursement for mileage and other related expenses. The Legislative Chair makes $18,000 annually. They meet twice a month at the Franklin County Court House in Malone as well as periodically with the respective town boards they represent.
The seven districts are comprised of approximately 7,400 constituents each.
In comparison, Essex County supervisors are split, with 12 considered full-time and six part-time. Their salaries range from a low of $18,937 to a high of $53,857 and nearly all are offered health insurance through both the town and county, plus mileage and other related expenses.
A buy-out for those who opt not to take health insurance is also available at the county and in some towns. The buy-out incentive at the town level varies, at the county it is $3,000 for an individual, or $5,000 for a family plan.
Essex County supervisors are also paid $17,335 each from the county, the budget liaison receives $19,438 and the chair of the board receives $22,339.
Looking strictly at county salaries and putting other benefits aside, that means Franklin County’s Board of Legislator’s make $108,000 annually, compared to Essex County at $319,137, a difference of $211,137.
Allowing more participation
Ed Hatch, who now serves as supervisor of Willsboro, said he campaigned on disbanding the board of supervisors in favor of a legislature.
A board of supervisors is an effective form of government, Hatch said, but only if supervisors can separate town from county business.
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen,” he said.
Plus, the time demand of representing both a town and county eliminates a lot of capable people from running for the post, Hatch said.
In counties that have a legislature, like Clinton and Franklin, legislators have other full-time professional jobs, like teaching and operating businesses.
The system in Essex County makes it so those individuals cannot participate, and instead encourages people to make politics their life occupation, Hatch said.
“When they started making it their jobs — at every level of government — it changed everything,” he said.
While the concept of moving from a county board of supervisors to a legislature has been raised twice in Essex County, and defeated by voters twice, Hatch said it is time to address it again.
“I’d support a board of legislators,” he said. “It’s time, and it has to be done.”