February 23, 2009

To consolidate, or not?

Every now and then I get to argue with people who think we should abolish villages and just have towns, cities, and counties. Or abolish towns and villages, leaving cities and counties - or just have counties. Personally, I think our layers of government exist for good reason, bringing decision-making closer to the people it affects. However, given the tax situation in New York State, lots of people seem to think that abolishing these layers would magically bring our tax burden down so it looked like we were living a lot further south.

I was surprised to find this piece on municipal consolidation in this morning's paper. Gannett seems generally on the side of consolidation, and I don't think of Jay Gallagher as an enthusiastic messenger for more layers of government.


Last November, when a consultant unveiled a plan about the effects of a potential merger between the town and village of Seneca Falls, one number jumped out at those attending the meeting: a potential savings of $978 a year on property taxes....

In fact, while taxes would plummet for village taxpayers, they would increase for town of Seneca Falls taxpayers.

According to his figures, abolishing the village, while saving village taxpayers $978 a year, would increase the levy on town residents who live outside the village, who now pay almost no taxes, by $375. Both figures are based on a house worth $100,000.

In addition, another big chunk of the savings would come from a $495,000 incentive grant from the state designed to encourage government consolidations - in effect, a shift in costs from village to state taxpayers.

"This whole thing is an art form, figuring out who benefits and who doesn't," said Zettick, who said that generally government merger plans can trim expenses "in the 2.5 percent to 5 percent range."

There's more there (and Seneca Falls may not prove the best example because of their landfill), but that seems like the core of it to me. 2.5% to 5% is real money, but hardly revolutionary. New York State has no shortage of consolidation and efficiency needs, but I continue to doubt that this highly visible one is really the place to start.

There is consolidation worth considering. Special districts seem to get scattered across the landscape on bonding terms that mostly give lawyers and accountants business. State government seems riddled with corners where agencies duplicate each other's work, but no one's quite sure who's in charge. I suspect it's too late to fix the strange differences between municipal boundaries and school district boundaries, but that might be worth considering as well.

But this piece pretty much confirms what I'd expected: there's some savings, but not enough that it makes sense to me to throw out local government on grounds of efficiency. Dryden seems plenty big enough for me, and I'd rather we had more villages form than see villages disincorporate.

Posted by simon at February 23, 2009 7:55 PM in
Note on photos


Nathanael said:

It's the "special districts" and the school districts where the meaningful consolidation savings are. And in the case of the school districts, it's the small ones and the weird Long Island ones with separate elementary and high school districts -- not the big districts like Ithaca and Lansing and South Cayuga.

For the special districts, they just shouldn't exist most of the time. But there are thousands of them.

Town and county governments do have a tendency to a certain amount of redundancy.

Villages and cities consistently exist for actual reasons, however. The real problem there is that some of the borders are archaic and unreasonable. Renwick Heights and the eastern Cayuga lakeshore get essentially all their services from the City of Ithaca, but are legally part of the Town of Ithaca and of a "special lighting district". Sane? No. They should be incorporated into the city (sorry about the higher property taxes, but it just makes more sense).