On April 12 the Dyson Foundation/Marist Poll released the first statewide survey of NYS residents’ opinions on local government consolidation (see www.nylocalgov.org). While restructuring is central to Governor Cuomo’s strategy to cut the tax burden, the results suggest that change will be slow without further state action.
- Support for restructuring is hardly universal, despite the bewildering complexity of NYS local government.
- Support varies by function: Highway services are more readily shared than public safety or education—why?
- Experience shows that the status quo is hard to dislodge, even where support is strong. How might state action spur cost-effective re-invention?
NYS local governments address needs that vary by region, density, and demography. Respondents’ views on restructuring likely vary by circumstance. While a village in a rural town retains a distinct role, many suburban villages and town are distinguished only by a sign on the boundary. School district consolidation looks different in densely populated Nassau County than in largely rural Greene County.
Apparently-similar communities display different patterns of service delivery, too. CGR finds few town/village pairs that share the same set of services. Some suburban villages have delegated services to their towns, adapting the village form to the expanded capacity of the town and the changing demands of town residents. Other villages assume new responsibilities, offering urban services to suburban tracts outside the village limits.
A lack of enthusiasm for restructuring may have other causes. Municipal boundaries often divide by race/ethnicity and economic status. Planning and zoning powers invested in local governments have been used to establish and maintain socioeconomic homogeneity, to our discredit.
Villages/towns/schools offer a sense of identity and belonging in an impersonal world. Coupled with racial and socioeconomic prejudice, this may explain tepid support for consolidation, particularly of schools and public safety services. Who plows our roads or maintains our parks concerns us less than who attends school with our children or protects our homes.
Many New Yorkers do support restructuring, however. Why, then, have so few communities “taken the plunge” of consolidation? The Dyson/Marist poll reveals that while many are open to change, few clamor for the right to redraw the map of the state or its localities. Inertia and fear of the unknown conspire to defeat merger or dissolution, even when the benefit seems clear. Moreover, while streamlined local government may save tax dollars, the savings are often modest and uncertain, not great enough to overrule apprehension and prejudice.
Restructuring of local government in NYS is proceeding at a glacial pace. State government should act to remove barriers to sensible reinvention. And localities may need a push.
- Our court system is overdue for an overhaul. Courts bring needed revenue to villages and towns, yet often inefficiently. Duplication at this level will persist unless the question is called by state action.
- We may have too many locally-elected positions. While mayors, supervisors and village/town boards are essential, we also elect positions that could be filled by appointees, e.g. assessors, clerks, tax receivers and highway superintendents. While there are exceptions, individuals elected to these posts often oppose change.
- In some communities, local public officials receive little salary but do receive benefits through their positions, particularly health and pension. This is a strong incentive to retain the status quo and align community leaders against restructuring. State action might set limits on this practice based on salary or size of municipality.
NYS might also explore new forms of local government that spur efficiency, yet preserve identity. Might we invent a “village” with reduced powers—something between the current village form and a business improvement district? Village residents might be empowered to eliminate service obligations without dissolving. New relationships between towns and counties and among school districts are also worth exploring.
We can have more efficient local government and the lower taxes such efficiency would bring. Yet the public is either ambivalent or divided. Reinventing NYS local government may only come from forceful state action.
CGR has studied shared services/consolidation in nearly 40 communities in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts since 2005.