Town officials and the structure of town government
This purpose of this document is to explain how town government is organized and what the most common duties and abilities are for each elective office.
Appropriate personality and high integrity are hugely important characteristics for all town officials. The official must not be arrogant or abusive to members of the public or to other officials. At the same time, the official must not be “wishy-washy” or willing to stretch the truth or the law to accommodate the demands of others - especially friends or “important people”. The official also needs an appropriate level of intellectual skills (reading, writing, math, financial concepts, critical thinking) obtained through education and/or experience to be able to understand issues and formulate solutions to them.
New York State classifies towns in suburban areas around major cities as “first class towns” based on their population, total assessed valuation, services they provide and other characteristics. Because of these characteristics, the governance rules for first class towns are more stringent and complex. All other towns - including all 19 towns in Delaware County - are “second class towns”.
The elected officials in second class towns are: a Town Supervisor, 4 Town Council Members, Town Clerk, Town Superintendent of Highways, Town Justice, a Tax Collector and either a “sole assessor” or a 3-person Board of Assessors. There are sections below describing each of the elected positions.
Because the officials listed in the previous paragraph are elected by the voters of the town, they have a definite term of office and may not be “fired” or removed from office except for serious misconduct. That serious misconduct must be proven in state court and it is the court that actually removes the person from the office. If an official is removed from office or resigns or dies, then there are specific procedures for filling the vacancy temporarily until an election can be held.
A town may also have a Town Attorney, a Town Engineer, a Code Enforcement Officer, a Director of Purchasing, a Comptroller and Police Officers or Constables. However in our area, these positions are almost always filled as contractual or appointed employees; therefore, their duties are not described in this document.
The election of all town officials occurs on the official election day in November of odd numbered years (2017, 2019, etc.). The term of office may be either 2 years or 4 years depending on the office and the particular town. The term begins on January 1 of the year following election.
All town officials are paid a salary or stipend which varies widely from town to town depending on the size of the town and the complexity of the job. The salaries are adopted by the Town Council when it adopts the annual budget for the next calendar year.
In Delaware County (and 16 other rural counties) the Town Supervisor plays two very distinct roles: as the “leader” and most visible official in the town itself and as a member of the County Board of Supervisors. The County Board of Supervisors functions as the “legislature” for the county. Forty other counties outside of New York City have a County Legislature with “representatives” that are elected from districts with boundaries that may be totally distinct from the town boundaries. As noted earlier, in Delaware County the Town Supervisor is one of 19 members (one from each town) of the County Board of Supervisors; as such, supervisors make decisions by voting on all resolutions and motions. Each supervisor also serves on several committees; in this role, the supervisor serves an intermediary between the department heads and the whole Board and plays a fundamental role in drafting policy regarding services to residents through various county programs. These county level tasks may require a significant amount of time, effort and knowledge on the part of a supervisor. Each Supervisor receives a salary from the county for these services; in 2017, this amount was $12,109.00 per year. One of the 19 supervisors is elected by the others to be the Chairman of the County Board of Supervisors; in this role he/she is essentially the county executive. In 2017, the Chairman of the Board receives $47,422 per year. A deputy chairman is also elected but he/she does not receive any additional salary.
On the town level, the town supervisor fills a significant role, serving in several major capacities, including:
• The supervisor is the presiding officer at meetings of the town council. The supervisor is chairman of the meetings and is usually the spokes person for the Council and thetown.
• The supervisor is an equal member with the other 4 people on the Town Council. He/she votes on all issues and participates equally in all discussions.
• The supervisor is the town executive and administrator. After town board decisions have been made, it is the supervisor who often carries out the decisions. The supervisor usually receives the majority of complaints and suggestions of citizens, as well and is thus the “interface” between the government and its citizens.
• The supervisor is the town fiscal officer or “treasurer” and generally represents the town in the conduct of its financial affairs. This role has many components such as being responsible for drafting the initial annual budget, ensuring that deposits are made, that account transactions are reconciled, that vendors and employees are paid and that financial reports are made to the Council and New York State. At the discretion of the Council, a professional “book keeper” may be hired to perform many of these duties but the Supervisor is ultimately responsible.
The Supervisor is paid a salary by the town for the services he/she performs on the town level. This amount is established when the annual budget is adopted. The Supervisor may either serve a 2-year or 4-year term of office depending on the procedures established in each individual town.
A town board may decide to establish the office of deputy supervisor. If it does, that official is appointed by the supervisor (or in some circumstances by the town board). In theory, any person, including a town officer or employee, may be appointed deputy supervisor but in practice, the Deputy is usually one of the other members of the Town Council. The Deputy may receive a (modest) additional stipend and his/her duties and privileges are assigned by the Supervisor or the Board.
Town Council or Town Board
While it is possible for a town to have 2 council people, all towns in Delaware County are composed of 4 council people plus the Town Supervisor who is an equal member along with the other 4. The legislative authority of the town rests in the town council, which is the governing board of the town and all decisions must be approved by a majority (3 out of the 5) of its members.
The town council adopts the budget, fixes the salaries of officers and employees, establishes rules of board procedure, designates the official newspaper of the town, adopts local laws and resolutions, approves expenditures for town operations and must approve all borrowing of money. The town board generally fills vacancies in elective or appointive town offices and provides for the hiring of other employees as necessary for the conduct of the town’s business. (Certain highway employees are hired by the highway superintendent, but within appropriations authorized by the town board).
The Town Council may establish committees of generally 1 or 2 members to coordinate with department heads or other community organizations. These committees report back to the entire Council and may formulate proposed solutions for the Council to consider and perhaps adopt.
While the tax expenditure for fire protection is levied on the town tax bill in January, the Town Council has no direct role in the work of a fire department. If there is a “fire protection district” then the town negotiates a contract with a separate department for fire protection. If there is a “rural fire district” or a “joint fire district” (with a neighboring village) then that district has a separate governance structure with its own budget, equipment and personnel; the cost appears on the town tax bill but the Town Council has no control over the taxes imposed.
The Town Clerk maintains an office (usually in the Town Hall) where she/he maintains regular office hours where the public and other officials may seek assistance. The Clerk:
• is in charge of most town records. These include financial and legal transactions undertaken by the town and local laws adopted by the Town Council.
• is responsible for recording births, marriages and deaths in the town as the local agent of the state.
• issues certain licenses and permits such as marriage, fishing and hunting licenses as the local agent of the state.
• files reports with county and State agencies as required.
• is involved with administering elections in the town.
• posts legal notices as required by law or by the Town Council.
• is clerk of the town board, taking minutes and recording votes on motions. However, the Clerk has no vote on the Council.
The Clerk is in many ways a pivot around which the town operates and (after the Supervisor) is the usually the second most visible town employee.
Because the Clerk is an independently elected official, she/he is not directly beholden to the Supervisor or Town Council and is not the supervisor’s secretary. The Clerk cannot be “fired” or removed from office except by a state court conviction for serious malfeasance. The term of office for a Clerk is 4 years.
Every town in New York State is required to have a Town Justice who presides over the Town Justice Court. While the Justice is elected in town-wide elections and his/her salary and other court expenses are paid by the town, the Town Justice is the initial level of the State Judiciary system. As such, town justices must receive a minimum level of training after they are elected but before they can begin serving. They must also participate in regular in-service training at conferences and other venues. While Justices are not required to have a law degree, there is increasing pressure from NYS for them to have formal legal training.
Town justices have jurisdiction in criminal and civil matters, and in special proceedings as conferred by law. When a person is charged with a serious crime, the arresting officer first brings the person before a Town Justice who must decide whether the charge and evidence is strong enough to remand the person to jail; at a subsequent hearing, the Justice decides whether the person can be released on bail pending a formal trial. Depending on the decisions of a Grand Jury and the County District Attorney, trial on the charges may be held in either State Supreme Court or Town Justice Court.
Town Justices conduct trials and hearings for violations and misdemeanors such as speeding, petty theft and hunting out of season. Finally, Justices hear “small-claims court” claims for payment of unpaid bills and eviction from an apartment.
Superintendent of Highways
The town superintendent of highways is primarily responsible for the maintenance and repair of town highways and bridges, and the removal of obstructions caused by brush and snow. The Superintendent generally has the power to hire employees, subject to appropriations established by the town board, and direct highway department employees for those purposes. The salary and expenses of the superintendent and the deputy (if any) and certain other administrative expenses are paid from the general fund. Most other highway expenses for equipment, supplies and salaries are generally paid from the town highway fund. A town’s most valuable municipal asset is probably its highway system and it is vitally important that the highway superintendent be capable of maintaining and enhancing that asset.
Assessors are local government officials who estimate the value of real property within a county, city, town, or village's boundaries. Assessors must strive to provide fair and accurate assessments since all county, town, village and school tax bills are based on this assessment.
To estimate the market value of property, the assessor must be familiar with the local real estate market. During a reassessment, assessors may physically re-inspect and reappraise properties. Most assessors must receive basic certification by New York State within three years of taking office and they may also attend conferences and related on-the-job training.
In addition to valuing property, assessors have other responsibilities:
• Inspect new construction and major improvements to existing structures to ensure accurate property descriptions and valuations
• Approve and track property tax exemptions, including the School Tax Relief (STAR) exemptions
• Use software to administer their various responsibilities
• Prepare evidence for and attend all public grievance hearings of the Board of Assessment Review and present evidence in support of the municipality's assessments
• Review real estate sale data for accuracy
• File annual reports on assessment changes with the state tax department.
Other non-elected officials:
In addition to elected officials discussed above, there are several other boards and individuals that play an important role in governing a community. The most notable are:
• Planning Board
• Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA)
• Board of Assessment Review
Individuals serve on these boards as volunteers and do not receive any monetary compensation for their work. They are generally appointed by the Supervisor subject to a majority vote of the Council to approve the appointment. Each position has a term of office set by local and state law and once appointed, the individual may not be easily removed before his/her term of office expires.