SARANAC LAKE - A proposal to charter Saranac Lake as a city is going to need a significant makeover before it has the support to become reality.
Officials from the village and towns that comprise Saranac Lake met at the Harrietstown town hall July 14 to review a feasibility study commissioned by the Saranac Lake Area Government Restructuring Committee.
Their response was that making Saranac Lake a city could lead to too much lost revenue for the three towns and two counties in which it's located.
The joint committee, comprised of representatives from the village and the towns of Harrietstown, North Elba and St. Armand, have been meeting with the New Paltz-based Fairweather Consulting firm for the past 12 months to find ways to reduce overlapping layers of government in the area and reduce costs to taxpayers.
Fairweather Consulting's Tim Weidemann presented an overview of the study, which examined the three most feasible options for restructuring. Village dissolution and the creation of a coterminous town-village were considered, but ultimately rejected because they were either too complicated to implement or created too much of a tax burden for residents outside the village.
In contrast, creation of a city was found to be a relatively simple solution that would amount to significant long-term savings for taxpayers in the village while having a minimal negative impact on the towns.
Still, many representatives from the towns felt the impact on their tax base was underestimated in the study, and said many questions are still left unanswered about the fiscal effects of chartering a city.
Creation of a city would remove the three towns' jurisdiction from Saranac Lake, requiring residents to pay property taxes only to the city government. Weidemann said the city would provide the same services as the village plus a few additional ones, leading to a slight savings to taxpayers within its borders.
But chartering Saranac Lake as a city would remove some of the towns' most highly valued property, leaving a significant gap for the rest of the town's residents to fill.
According to North Elba town supervisor Roby Politi, his town would lose roughly $90 million in assessed value, the equivalent of $175,000 in annual property tax revenue.
Both Politi and St. Armand supervisor Joyce Morency expressed concern over the fact that, as a city, Saranac Lake could potentially preempt its sales tax and occupancy tax revenues from the county.
"Some 700 rooms in North Elba would be lost in terms of bed tax," said Politi.
"New York's cities have the option to preempt sales tax," said Weidemann. "This study assumes that this city will not."
"We've been down this road before," Politi added. "If the leaders of my community thought this was doable, don't you think Lake Placid would quickly become a city?"
Saranac Lake village trustee Jeff Branch, who was the only village official present at the meeting, urged town leaders not to dismiss the idea of a city.
"What do you say to the people in your town who have a 69 percent increase in their taxes?" Branch asked Politi, referring to the study's estimated fiscal impact of village dissolution.
"The things we've brought up tonight are the same things we've been bringing up all along," said Harrietstown councilman Ron Keough. "Out of all the options, it looks like the city is the best option, but how we make it fair for everybody is what we need to work on."
North Elba councilman Derek Doty suggested a possible compromise involving revenue sharing. Other town leaders indicated such a deal may be necessary to gain their support for a city charter.
• The last time a city was chartered in New York State was 1940.
• Establishing a city requires the approval of the State Legislature. Historically, the legislature has not approved the establishment of a city without the support of its neighboring local governments.
• If Saranac Lake were to become a city, it would be the third-least populous city in the state with a population of 5,041.
• Only three of New York's 61 cities currently have a population below 6,000. The city of Sherill, with a population of 3,147, is the least populous and the only city where residents also pay town taxes.
• Only two other cities in New York State reside in two counties: Geneva and New York City. Both preempt their counties' sales tax.