WEST ONEONTA _ "Get the facts."
Town of Oneonta resident and businessman Robert Harlem Jr. was one of a chorus of voices that suggested the town board form its own committee in reaction to city of Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller's call for a town-city merger discussion group.
And that's what the Oneonta Town Board did at its meeting Tuesday night at town hall.
During the public comment period when Harlem and other residents reacted to the mayor's plea, board member Scott Gravelin proposed a committee of the five town board members and five town residents.
"I think we need to have our own study," he said. "I would use the information that has been gathered. But I would also like to gather our own data."
Gravelin said he hasn't seen any solid facts and figures.
"I want to see the Column A and Column B," he said. "Once the facts are presented we can move from there."
Gravelin's motion passed by a unanimous vote of all five board members.
In his remarks to the board, Miller said he realized that if a referendum on a merger were held today in the town, it would fail. He said it would also likely fail in the city.
But he laid out his case for discussing the issue and said if the group was formed and the merger idea moved forward, the earliest it could be put before voters would be the fall of 2014.
"Simply stated, what drives me is that I see an opportunity to strengthen our community, improve its economy, and protect and leverage our significant assets so that Oneonta will be a greater force in the region and state," Miller said.
Miller's proposal included an equal number of town and city residents and elected officials.
He also left open the idea of options other than merging, including more shared services.
"Under the discussions I propose, we may be able to achieve the benefits of acting as one community without merging. Benefits are the objective. Merger is a vehicle, but may not be the only one," Miller said.
Harlem, who was on a 1996 commission that studied a merger, echoed Miller's address and said there may be other options that could benefit both communities.
"There is a lot of misinformation out there. Strike the word merger. Strike the word consolidation," said Harlem during a wide-ranging public comment period that lasted more than an hour.
The meeting attracted about 100 community members, some of whom discouraged the town from discussing anything related to a merger.
Angie Van Bramer, a 53-year resident of the town, garnered more than 10 seconds of loud applause as she questioned why a merger was even being discussed at a town board meeting. She also questioned the mayor's assessment of how a merger could benefit the two municipalities.
"In the real world, things don't happen the way you want them to happen," Van Bramer said. "It should be a done deal. Why is this still on the table? Big government is not better government."
Some favored the mayor's approach to at least discussing a merger or other ways the communities can share services.
"I have no opinions right now. I don't see what's wrong with a commission. It doesn't cost the town board a dime. It doesn't cost the city a dime," town resident Bruce Sloan said.
Others said they were leery of a loss of representation in a combined government. City residents outnumber town residents by a three-to-one margin, town resident Jim Woodham said.
Jim Baldo, a town resident who owns business properties in the city, said issues related to merger and shared services should at least be discussed. Baldo said both communities face challenges as more young people move away.
"Without the city, there is no town. Without the town, there is no city," Baldo said. "At least bring it into the front where we can make an intelligent decision based on facts and no feelings."
Others indicated the communities share services, and suggested a merger would be a money-grab by the city.
"The bottom line is the city needs the town. It's a fact. We're a cash cow," said Marie Lusins-McLachlan, a former town board member who also served on the 1996 commission. That commission recommended a discussion group similar to what the mayor proposed, but those recommendations never came to fruition.
In his remarks, Miller also referenced a study done by the state in 2008 that examined government efficiency in Oneonta, Cortland and Norwich and a 2010 update of the 1996 study. That update was done by SUNY Oneonta's Center for Community Economic Development.
Miller said that although he did not get support for his joint discussion group, he was thankful the town acted.
"I am very supportive of their direction. What I asked for was a discussion that would look at the facts and how we could derive benefit from some closer integration of the city and the town," Miller said. "The fact that they are headed in that direction is a really good thing."