New York is an old state. That gives us a proud history to reflect upon, from the rising of the New York City as the world’s financial capital to the birth of social reforms and protections for workers to the construction of public engineering marvels like the Erie Canal.
It also gives us a woefully outdated structure of government that has proven incredibly resilient despite many criticisms and calls for change.
The latest evidence comes from a Center for Governmental Research project — prepared for the Long Island Index — comparing the structure and cost of government on Long Island to that of another densely populated suburban area: Northern Virginia.
The CGR project, headed by Charlie Zettek, found that Long Island had 26 times as many governments (including towns, villages, cities, school districts and special districts) as Northern Virginia: 439 vs. 17. This correlated with higher costs for government. Long Islanders pay $5,562 per capita for government, compared to $3,840 in Northern Virginia, a difference of 45%. Higher spending, of course, means higher taxes. Long Islanders pay 55% more in property taxes than their counterparts in Northern Virginia.
You might not be surprised at any of those figures. But consider this: the Long Island Index survey of residents in both areas found Northern Virginia residents were generally more satisfied with the level of service they received from local governments than Long Islanders.
More Northern Virginia residents rated police, parks, roads and schools as “excellent” or “good” than Long Islanders. (More Long Islanders gave high marks to garbage services, and the two areas were about equal in rating libraries.) Twice as many Northern Virginians said they could trust their county government to do what is right all or most of the time (51% vs. 26% on Long Island).
Back in the non-surprising category, nearly twice as many Northern Virginians as Long Islanders said the value in quality local services that they receive from property taxes was excellent or good (62% vs. 33%).
The new information in the report is that more local governments don’t produce more satisfied residents. When New York’s mind-boggling system of local governments has been defended, it has often been on those grounds. These findings strongly undercut that argument.
There were several other interesting findings. CGR’s analysis found that most of the difference in the cost of government in the two areas could be attributed to higher salaries and benefits for government workers here in New York: $873 of the $1,722 difference between per-capita costs on Long Island and in Northern Virginia (51%). New York is a state with strong protections for public workers and powerful unions, while Virginia is a right-to-work state where employers call most of the shots.
Another significant part of the difference can be attributed to different state requirements to fund programs ($477, or 28%, of the $1,722). In New York, local governments pay more toward public assistance programs and highways than in Northern Virginia.
But the remainder — $372, or 22% of the difference – can mostly be traced to the structure of governments.
The analysis of spending on fire services illustrates this point nicely. On a per capita basis, Long Island had 3 times the number of fire stations and fire trucks than Northern Virginia. Why? In Northern Virginia, fire fighting resources are managed at a regional county-wide level. Contrast that with Long Island’s 179 separate fire departments, which manage resources for their own little corner of the world. The result is, on a regional basis, there is massive — and costly — duplication of stations and equipment.
New York’s system of local government dates to the 18th century. Many efforts to change it and encourage consolidation have accomplished little. It’s not unlike the court system, which was the subject of a recent talk to the area League of Women Voters. Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Frazee, a member of the Special Commission on the Future of the New York State Courts, explained our similarly outdated judicial system.
New York has 9 trial courts and the most complex structure in the nation. Although it’s a dry topic, there are real consequences for people in the court system who lose time (not to mention their sanity) appearing in multiple courts on the same case. But several commissions have come and gone over the past several decades and the Legislature hasn’t budged on any of their suggested reforms (most recommend the same things: consolidate and make two trial courts, add a Fifth Department to the Appellate Division).
We have a new commission on local government too, Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s Commission on Local Government Efficiency. It’s long past time for the voters and – more importantly – the Legislature to take seriously and act upon the work that comes of these commissions. It’s just not true anymore, if it ever was, that the status quo upsets no one and change will be difficult. Change will be difficult, but it becomes more urgent every day.