An empire is an aggregate of many territories, and the Empire State is composed of many jurisdictions: 57 counties, 62 cities, 556 villages, 932 towns, as well as school districts, water districts, library districts, etc. Add the special purpose authorities and the units of governance in the State of New York are literally countless (a governor’s Commission on Local Government was unable to come up with an exact figure but it’s something over 4,000). In a time of strained resources, rising costs and increased demands for public service it should not be surprising that state and local issues always seem to lead to the question of making the level of government hailed as being closest to the people more efficient. The word that’s heard is consolidation.
The concept of government consolidation has at least two broad meanings.
Functional consolidation refers to municipalities and authorities working in cooperation, sharing personnel and resources. It can be as essential and obvious as police and fire departments serving more than one municipality. More frequently locales will cooperate in their “back room” operations, such as insurance and personnel management.
Structural consolidation means extending the town boundaries, dissolving the village, establishing metro government and creating an expanded or entirely new governmental entity. The laws of New York State provide for citizen petitioning to restructure the local government, though the process is complicated and rarely carried out. For example, if a big city wants to extend its borders around an adjacent village it must be approved by a majority in both the city and the little village.
Functional consolidation happens all the time and few people raise strong objections. Structural consolidation is regularly one of the bloody shirts of local politics in the Empire State.
New York’s state government encourages local entities to cooperate and provides assistance through the Division of Local Government Services (LG) in the Department of State. Their encouragement activity has become even more persuasive now that LG has $23 million in Local Government Efficiency Grants to support research into shared services and “to promote intermunicipal efforts to improve efficiency and reduce municipal costs.”
The efforts of LG have been reinforced by the April, 2008 report of the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness. Chaired by former lieutenant governor Stan Lundine, the Commission looked into almost every aspect of local government activity to find redundancy, inefficiency and practices that were clearly out-of-date.
A report issued by the Association of Towns of the State of New York rebutted the Commission report, asserting that “bigger regional government is not better, and is often more expensive.”
To explain the motives and methods behind the many kinds of consolidation, WSKG Public Broadcasting is presenting a series of special reports and a face-to-face debate between candidates for Broome County Executive in which consolidation will be a major theme.
On Monday and Tuesday, September 29th and 30th during MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on WSKG Radio, special reports will define consolidation, dissolution and shared services. Part of the report was recorded at a workshop for local government officials sponsored by the Department of State’s LG Division in Corning – the first in a series of fifteen such workshops to be held across New York State.
John Clarkson, executive director of the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness.
Kenneth Kamlet, attorney and co-chair of the consolidation committee of the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce.
Tim Whitesell, since 1990 the town supervisor of the Town of Binghamton and a member of the executive committee of the Association of Towns of the State of New York.
Michael Hattery, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Local Government in the Department of Public Administration of Binghamton University and a member of the Tompkins County Legislature.