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Fulton, Montgomery counties would gain through consolidation

Sunday, September 22, 2013
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Illustration by Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette
Illustration by Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette

Fulton and Montgomery counties need to consolidate and become one county.

Consolidation, not just cooperation, is what they need to foster development and to deal with problems common to both, like chronic unemployment. I don’t want to disparage the recent meeting both counties had with international site selector Michael Mullis, in which regional cooperation was emphasized. Absent consolidation, cooperation is necessary.

However, cooperation between separate entities relies to a large extent on the ability of the leaders of those entities to get along. Sometimes that is possible, other times it is not. Consolidation into one unit forces the two entities to do what otherwise they might choose not to do.

There are several reasons that consolidation makes sense. One goes back to the year 1838 when the two counties, which were then one, split into two.

The split came about when the county seat was moved from Johnstown to Fonda. The people in the Mohawk Valley wanted the county seat in Fonda because they said it was more centrally located. The people in what was then northern Montgomery County (now Fulton County) did not take kindly to the move.

The people in the Adirondack foothills considered Fonda an “upstart village” says F. W. Beers’ “History of Montgomery and Fulton Counties.” Led by Judge Daniel Cady, father of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, they petitioned the state legislature to “secede” from Montgomery County. The state approved.

Looking at a map, it seems that the people from Fulton County had the truth on their side. It is hard to see where Fonda is any more centrally located than Johnstown. And without meaning to offend the residents of Fonda, the village hardly qualifies as a county seat, certainly not in the same way that Johnstown does. The resultant division, however, was not in the best interests of either county.

Both counties today share similar demographics and face similar problems.

Both have populations that are small and have been static for years, fluctuating between 50,000 and 55,000 each for the last century.

Consolidation would give a reunited county more clout on the state level and more clout in attracting business. It would especially help the tourism industry. The reunited county would not only have the draw of the Mohawk Valley but also the draw of the foothills of the Adirondacks, including the Great Sacandaga Lake.

Furthermore, all of the sites pertaining to Sir William Johnson — Old Fort Johnson, Guy Park Manor, Fish House (Northampton), Johnson Hall and other Johnson-related sites in Johnstown — which attract tourists, would be in the same county.

While consolidation rarely brings about the cost savings that proponents tout, it does help. With a reunited county, the number of department heads could be reduced, meaning the new county would cost less to operate than the two counties. The new county would not need two administrators, two sheriffs, two social services heads and so on.

Saving money

Looking at county salaries, suppled by www.seethroughny.net, the elimination of the top seven department heads would save the counties $700,000 per year in salaries. If you add in the savings in benefits, the amount for eliminating those seven positions would be more than $1 million a year. After examining both counties budgets, it appears unlikely that any savings would exceed 2 percent of both counties’ current budgets, nevertheless since there are few places left to cut expenses, the amount saved would help.

Looking at the history of Montgomery and Fulton counties over the past 40 years, one can see that both have been moving toward cooperation and hopefully consolidation. One of the biggest cooperative ventures was the formation of Fulton-Montgomery Community College. Another was the creation of the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES program.

Many organizations in the two counties have consolidated over the past few decades. One of the most recent is the Fulton-Montgomery Regional Chamber of Commerce. A sample of other organizations which serve both counties are Cornell Co-operative Extension, the Mental Health Association, the Farmers Market Association and the Fulmont Community Action Agency. There are also several businesses that use the word Fulmont in their names to indicate they serve both counties.

Biggest hurdle

The state Legislature would have to approve the re-unification of the two counties. That does not seem to me to be a big hurdle. The biggest hurdle might be to convince people who have been divorced for 175 years that re-marriage is in their best interests. The little things that caused the separation might also be a problem.

Johnstown would be the obvious county seat. Not only because it is centrally located, but because it is a city that county residents can be proud to bring visitors to. The name of the county should also revert to the original, which was Montgomery County. An agreement making Johnstown the county seat but retaining the name Montgomery County would allow the partisans of each county to receive something from the bargain.

The consolidation or reunification of Fulton and Montgomery counties is in the best interests of both and is a goal worth pursuing. With cooperation, reunification can happen.

Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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comments

September 22, 2013
2:55 p.m.
ronzo says...

Great idea, but they can't even get two tiny school districts in Fulton County to merge. The chances of getting the people to agree to a merger of counties? They will hang onto their little turfdoms until they are totally broke and run out of money, because that's what it will take to get people to accept change. But then it will be too late. Apparently they are not taxed enough to want to do anything about it now while there's still a chance.

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