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Extension helps communities be more efficient

With an eye on achieving sustainability in the 21st century, Cornell and Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) are helping upstate municipalities explore how they could merge or share services. A community and economic vitality initiative in Batavia, N.Y., for example, is exploring how the city and town might consolidate. Their initiative is emerging as a template for inter-municipal cooperation and prosperity for upstate New York.

Cornell has been helping through the Rural Learning Network of Central and Western New York, Community and Rural Development Institute, Department of Development Sociology and CCE.

For example, the Rural Learning Network has been working with community leaders to address issues affecting communities and economic development prospects in western and central New York, said Nina Glasgow, senior research associate in development sociology and co-leader of the network. The network has held conferences on the role of brain drain/gain issues, local/regional foods and greener communities, and will hold a May 13 conference on promoting regional assets. "The focus on regional cooperation and development is a hallmark of all of the network's activities," Glasgow said.

Leaders from the public, private, education and volunteer sectors first met in 2007 to evaluate how inter-municipal cooperation and services consolidation could impact western and central New York, areas that have faced declines in population, loss of manufacturing jobs and economic stagnation. Many state leaders and experts see more local government collaboration as essential for long-term fiscal health in the state. Since 2005 state officials have awarded almost $30 million in incentive grants to enable communities to improve delivery of public services.

"We heard at the 2007 conference about the importance of open forums and of public education," said Rod Howe, assistant director of CCE. "Working with our partners, I see CCE as really being able to facilitate a process of helping the interested parties not only find common ground and engage a broader community, but also share best practices."

In Genesee County, the town of Batavia has expanded over time while the city of Batavia has diminished. Beverly Mancuso, executive director of CCE of Genesee County, said local officials asked CCE for help in facilitating conversations to address these trends. With 13 discrete governments, Genesee County, population 60,370, was a prime candidate to take on the challenge of consolidation.

Mancuso said discussions have included town and city employees, members of city council, the town supervisor and some private citizens. "We were looking for feedback on what was working, what wasn't working and what opportunities there were, and really trying to build a group that would talk to each other. They were the first ones that helped us identify the initial opportunities," Mancuso said.

"CCE has the ability to see down the road, to see what challenges are coming, and we can connect things because we don't have any particular stake one way or the other," Mancuso said, adding that CCE also has an important role to play in disseminating information about Batavia's plans for consolidation.

"Our focus is going to be on education -- not trying to tell people that this is the thing to do, but giving them information so that they can make better informed decisions," Mancuso said.

In September and October, city and town of Batavia residents will be invited to a series of public hearings on the proposed merger, and the effort will culminate Nov. 3, when citizens of both communities will have an opportunity to vote on a consolidation plan.

Jacqueline Dowdell is communications coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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