Police service is often the most cherished and visible municipal service—and inevitably one of the costliest. When it comes to balancing local government costs and quality of life, law enforcement increasingly is part of the public conversation. Too often, the immediate reflex is to equate cost savings in law enforcement with compromising public safety. That need not be the case.
A dichotomy drives the challenge
First, there’s emotion involved. We like the sense of security that comes with knowing an officer is patrolling our street. Whether responding to emergencies and criminal activity or getting to know residents on a first-name basis, police form bonds and fill roles that many residents consider vital for their community. Recently I learned some youths in my own neighborhood had accosted one of my neighbors. When I found out how intimately the police officers know the community and possible perpetrators, I could turn my attention away from being fearful for my family and instead focus on community advocacy and intervention.
Second, there are dollars and cents involved. Local governments across the country are more constrained than ever by limited resources and rising costs. In New York and New Jersey, for example, pension and other negotiated benefits are driving mandated annual increases that result in many governments bumping up against their state’s 2% cap on the growth in the tax levy. Plus in New York existing police union contracts are further insulated from certain cost pressures by law (i.e., Taylor Law, Triborough Amendment) and unions can exercise a binding arbitration process that has historically produced favorable outcomes for their members.
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Elections bring change – an opportunity to “reset” the policy agenda. Any newly elected governing body brings with it new policy priorities – some collective priorities shared by multiple members, and some unique ones espoused by individual officials.
The key challenge of any new governing body is effectively managing those priorities. Doing it well positions a new government to deliver results; failing to do so invites distraction to the governing process, treating all issues equally and encouraging less-than-strategic governance.
The challenge was magnified in Princeton, New Jersey this year. Its transition to a new governing council in January coincided with the launch of a newly consolidated municipality, the state’s most significant in more than sixty years. Thus in Princeton, the new ideas and priorities that typically accompany new governing bodies existed alongside consolidation-related issues and transition matters that, in some cases, required more urgent attention. Read more »
If we could redraw the map, we would never create the patchwork quilt of local governments we have now. That’s a familiar refrain among people who observe local government—and not just in NYS. But the opportunity for a complete overhaul of the current – inefficient – system in many states rarely comes along. Usually, the most that can be done is to “rearrange the furniture”.
The City and Town of Batavia, NY are an exception. They are two communities reinventing themselves. The endeavor began in 2008 when Town and City leaders launched an exploration of service sharing options. From combining highway operations to merging the police department with the County Sheriff, the municipalities looked at feasible courses of action to save money. By the end of the study, the idea of merging into one new city had captured their imaginations. Becoming one city presented the most opportunities to streamline the local governments, cut costs, enhance services and improve the communities’ image in the region. Read more »
Over the years, CGR has provided analytical guidance to countless communities exploring the issue of municipal consolidation. Of all the things that make those communities unique – their density, services, cost structure, geography and more – one aspect of the merger discussion has been omnipresent: The potential benefits or drawbacks of consolidation are very much in the eye of the beholder.
Some residents – perhaps most – focus on the dollars and cents: “What impact would consolidation have on my property taxes and, by extension, my wallet?” This is clearly understandable, especially given the current economic and fiscal environment in places like NY, NJ, OH and MA where CGR has completed such studies. Read more »
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?
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The results of village elections on March 16 cast a ray of hope that perhaps New Yorkers are finally willing to take responsibility for deciding the future of local governments across the state. In five villages, from Port Henry in the east to Randolph in the southwest, voters went to the polls to decide whether or not to dissolve their village and merge with the town. Four villages – Seneca Falls, Perrysburg, East Randolph and Randolph – chose to dissolve, while voters in Port Henry elected to keep their village government. In addition, voters in the Village of Saugerties agreed to dissolve their police department and consolidate with the town police department, and Village of Medina voters chose to abolish their court and merge with the town courts.
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Consolidating local governments in New York is a hot topic across the state. Proponents maintain consolidation is a way to make local governments more efficient and less costly. Opponents argue that services will be cut, local representation will be lost, and savings will be minimal at best. Every week, I receive calls from local government officials across upstate asking what is involved in studying how to share or consolidate services. Almost invariably, the caller starts out by saying, “I’m not necessarily in favor of dissolving or consolidating, but I feel it is my responsibility to the taxpayers to look at every avenue to reduce our local taxes.”
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The Rochester community confronts problems that will test the mettle of our leaders in coming decades. Our core challenges persist and others will emerge, yet help from external sources will become scarce. We are thrust back on our own devices, thus on the ability of our leaders to forge community solutions to community problems.
The City of Rochester will continue to struggle with its central economic problem: too many school dropouts and too many graduates who are ill-prepared for further schooling or a career. There is no challenge more difficult or more important.
- Students who leave school without the tools to earn a living for themselves and their families face a lifetime of struggle.
- The economy trades a contributor for a dependent.
- The city’s economic vitality will be limited by an ill-trained workforce and a crime rate that is fueled by desperation, resentment, and disillusionment.
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In unprecedented numbers, communities across the state are looking at the potential for consolidating government services, either through shared service agreements or outright merging of governments. Why? Because citizens have reached the point where the high cost of local taxes has motivated them to stand up and ask that governments reconsider in fundamental ways who should deliver services, and how.
Study after study makes it clear that consolidation is not a magic bullet for drastically reducing costs and can’t provide the 10% to 30% immediate savings that many taxpayers want. Rather, research suggests that consolidation realistically reduces total costs by 2% to 5%, which critics use to raise the question – why bother? Based on 10 studies over the past three years where the Center for Governmental Research examined shared services and consolidation in towns, villages, cities and school districts across New York, I suggest five reasons why consolidation should be considered.
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