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Patterson, Silver say "Us Too" on Cuomo's Consolidation Bill

Size Matters

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s consolidation bill could be transformative. Cuomo spent most of this past year working it up—consulting with elected officials, making his pitch at law schools, carefully vetting his work so that he had buy-in from think tanks, old hands, and current practitioners. The result is a piece of legislation that will probably be enacted before the state legislature goes home for the summer in a couple of weeks. Cuomo has been so successful at preparing the roll-out of his bill that today, readers of a classic children’s story about baking bread may find the story eerily reminiscent.

Sources predict that Cuomo consolidation bill will prevail despite the opposition of lobbyists representing mayors, towns and other local governments. The gist of it: Cuomo has crafted a law that empowers local citizens to initiate referenda for consolidating, merging, and even dissolving towns, villages, and special districts.

And now that the Cuomo bill is on its way, everybody is a reformer. Governor David Paterson issued a statement pointing out that he has always been a reformer, and that it was he and only he who not only accepted but endorsed the findings of the Lundine Commission. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver is himself sponsoring the bill in the State Assembly, after months and months went by during which all observers, pro and con, knew that Assemblymember Sam Hoyt (whose former chief of staff is a Cuomo policy advisor) was the logical carrier of the bill.

This thing is such an obvious winner that reformers new and old are claiming it as their own.

They’re right to get on board.

Cuomo’s bill isn’t like the ill-conceived movement to shrink a town board from five to three members—a dumb idea even if it does succeed, as a three-person board means that two board members holding a phone conversation constitutes a violation of the open meetings law. If you go in for empty gestures, by all means, vote to shrink your town board.

Cuomo puts the issue squarely before the suburban elected officials, and their constituents, who complain the most about taxes, government, and costs. His law says, essentially, that anybody who wants to reorganize the insane spider-web of lighting districts, fire districts, villages, town boards, and other structures can go ahead and do it. Want to get a reputation as a crusader for efficiency? Go for it, cul-de-sacs. Want to lead a citizens’ movement to restructure the thousand or so special districts in Erie County? Bring it on, suburbia.

Some grumble that Cuomo’s new law doesn’t address school boards, cities, or counties. That’s true but irrelevant: Cities and counties already have the power to merge. Not only is there no obstacle to creating merged city-county governments, there is actually a specific provision of state law that has been available for decades. Supplying the political will for change is the issue.

And now, where there’s the will at the local level, there is actually a way.

Dumb downsizing versus smart-sizing

Cuomo wasn’t much interested in forcing an Albany-hatched plan for regionalization upon the struggling upstate metro areas. If I have a gripe about his bill, it is simply this: Some governor, some day soon, needs to do just that. I believe that the day is upon us when the governor of the State of New York and his colleagues in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio, need to sit down together and hammer out a framework for restructuring the governance of their metro areas—because every last one of the Rust Belt metro areas is losing people, strangling itself with overlapping jurisdictions and competing municipal boundaries, and still sprawling ever-outward despite the loss of actual bodies.

But what’s bubbling up from the grassroots?

Around here, it’s more of the usual—a sort of weak-tea version of the Tea Party. And some truly dumb ideas.

Take, for example, the recently submitted work of the 21st Century Commission, a body convened by the chair of the Erie County Legislature.

Talk about a superfluous commission. Apparently, the chair does not know that once every 10 years, the County Charter mandates that the legislature as a whole must convene a review panel to decide how many districts it needs to maintain. Here’s the relevant quote:

Section 210. Advisory committee on reapportionment. During the first three months of the year following the year in which a federal decennial census is taken, an advisory committee shall be created to make recommendations to the county legislature on whether and how the county legislature should be reapportioned consistent with federal and state law…

The law goes on to state that the reapportionment commission should consist of 15 members, including three elected officials, two appointed officials, and 10 citizens.

But apparently, the allure of downsizing is so overwhelming that local politicians these days will do anything—even to the extent of ignoring existing law—in order to connect themselves with the movement.

The Erie County Legislature has shrunk already to 15, and yet the population of Erie County has not changed much since 1970, when the legislature had many more members; the old Board of Supervisors had 54 members. The Buffalo Common Council a few years ago lost its at-large council seats and its citywide-elected council presidency, shrinking from 13 members to nine —and the impact on the quality of decision-making has been…what, exactly?

In this week’s ill-attended votes in Evans and in West Seneca, where town board downsizing was on the ballot, the nature of the fights was entirely personal. In West Seneca, the supervisor saw an opportunity for ridding himself of two board opponents. In Evans, a long-delayed reassessment and the resulting anger over increased property taxes was the issue. In both cases, lawsuits about the Open Meetings Act were already contemplated in case the downsizing initiatives prevailed.

Childhood’s end

Size matters. Democracy matters. It’s a tricky balance. Concentrating power in the hands of just a few elected officials is a risky matter—but the massive democracy of the 400-odd member New Hampshire State Legislature (which is three times the size of New York’s) seems to work only in out-of-the-way places.

What Cuomo’s bill gets to, and why it is so important, is the pass-the-hot-potato problem that town governments institutionalized all over this state, and in so many other Rust Belt states, over the past half-century.

These Great Lakes urban regions are all burdened by hundreds upon hundreds of special assessment districts for various kinds of suburban services—services that all should be managed regionally, with visible budgets, by qualified public servants. The nearly 10,000 units of government that Cuomo refers to include the 25 towns, three cities and 16 villages of Erie County, but mainly consist of thousands of these invisible districts that, all told, levy many billions of dollars of taxes. Thousands of units of government are not accountable. There is literally nobody minding the store in most of them. The reason they exist is that the politicians who run town governments didn’t want the costs of providing special-district services to show up on the town tax bill.

That’s the hot-potato game that the towns have played for decades. Cuomo’s bill says, “Stop.” Of course, making these hot potatoes visible won’t make the taxes go away: Lights and sewers and fire-suppression services and other such stuff still have to be paid for. But the true cost of fractured, localized government will be revealed.

Thus Cuomo’s bill opens the door on a long-overdue process of showing just how uninterested the suburban political class has been—and still might be—in shedding it traditions of patronage and micro-local management. And once that process is underway, the citizens who are paying the price will be that much more able to see that the spider-web, the hot-potato and all the other governance games that are straight out of nursery rhymes are too childish to continue.

Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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