November 13, 2009

A community not dissolved, and the Journal mourns

Every now and then the Ithaca Journal goes out of its way to demonstrate that it's not actually a local paper, but rather the local office of a huge company with little genuine interest in the landscape it supposedly serves - even the expanded Ithaca-Elmira-Binghamton zone it now publishes on. Today's editorial is one of those painfully telling moments, a thudding series of missteps in which the Journal assumes that the only important goal voters should have is lower taxes.

The poor Journal is shocked - shocked! - that Johnson City voters decided that preserving the identity of their village was more important than potential savings from a merger with the Town of Union. The editorial is worth tearing apart piece by piece, I'm afraid.

Self-interest prevailed and foresight was flushed away, along with a chance for residents to slash their annual village tax bill - according to a study - by about 25 percent. Change isn't easy, especially if it involves breaking with tradition....

In this context, I'm used to hearing "self-interest" used to praise people who want lower taxes, not applied as a slam to people who decided higher taxes might be worth the cost. And "foresight" seems to be used creatively here to mean only lower taxes. Then they come in with the corporate consulting style call for "change", and dismiss tradition. Given the amount of change Gannett's gone through lately, I can only assume this was written by a true corporate believer.

Certainly, dissolution wouldn't have solved all of JC's problems. But it would have been a start, and it would have sent a message to other communities to be more aggressive about saving their taxpayers' money....

Now this is interesting. Not only are these voters foolish for not reducing their taxes, their actions tell other communities that they don't need to pay attention to taxes? I can just hear it now - "Hey - Johnson City didn't dissolve. I guess that means we can hike taxes 10%!" Right.

In neither Tompkins nor Chemung did a village have to say goodbye to itself to achieve savings, but if that's what it requires, voters may have to take those drastic steps to afford to live in their communities.

Right. They wouldn't want to, say, offend readers by suggesting specific villages that should dissolve, right? Let's just make clear that voters should be on the lookout for ways to consolidate into ever-larger units because that'll make government cheaper. Not more responsive or more responsible, just cheaper.

Next, they reach back to the founders of Johnson City just to make clear how little interest Gannett has in 'tradition', really brings home how they'd like to make very certain that we all understand that it's not up to us, but up to the companies that might or might not want to stay in our area:

That didn't happen this time in Johnson City, a village named for a man who took fellow residents' problems on as his own. Maybe the majority who defeated dissolution don't mind high taxes. Maybe they're happy with the present and not worried about the future.

But they should be. As history shows, financial security can be fickle. George F. Johnson built a successful shoe business, but one that over time could not keep up with changing consumer tastes and global competition. Endicott-Johnson is a part of JC's glorious past, but those wonderful memories cannot balance the village's annual budget.

You know, that really reminds me of how the Elmira Star-Gazette was Frank Gannett's first paper, and the Ithaca Journal his second, and how these papers' glorious past cannot balance a budget that keeps reporters on staff, local news flowing, and much semblance of connection to their home cities intact. Of course, they aren't allowed the luxury of elections to decide how that goes - they're just getting merged in with the Binghamton paper and given fewer resources all the time.

The conclusion demonstrates to me that whoever wrote this doesn't have any great sense of connection with their community:

Hardly anything would have changed except the size of their tax bills.

What a lesson in missed opportunities.

What a lesson in not comprehending people's interest in control over their own area, their sense of identity, their sense of place, and how the two intertwine.

There is real work to be done in consolidation and in sharing services. There is little good reason for the proliferation of water and sewer districts, each with their own terms, billing, and accounting. There is certainly room for municipalities to share equipment and services, and to form cooperative pools for things like insurance where size leads to discounts.

But expecting that people should want to push government itself into larger units, handing off local decisions to people further away? I have a very hard time seeing the appeal of that.

I'm glad we already cancelled our subscription, though we had to tell the Journal we didn't want their paper repeatedly before they actually believed it. There's not much left there.

Posted by simon at November 13, 2009 8:58 AM in ,
Note on photos


Mary Ann said:

I particularly like the comparison to the Village of Pike NY, population 382, consolidating with the Town of Pike, population 1,086. By comparison, the Village of Freeville has 505 people and the Town of Dryden about 14,000. Johnson City has 14,000 people and the Town of Union has 56,000.

The Town and Village of Pike contracted with Genesee/Finger Lakes Regional Planning to study the potential impact of consolidation. The study cost $93,000 and was funded with $9,300 of local tax dollars and an $83,700 state Shared Municipal Services Incentive grant - like the one that funded the formation of Tompkins County's Health Insurance Consortium.

Picture it: 382 people - 255 of them over 18. One is the mayor - who also serves as Public Works Superintendent - and two are trustees. They employ a maintenance worker, a clerk and deputy clerk as well as a water meter reader and a water system operator. According to the consolidation report, "The Village’s Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals have never met, at least not in the memory of anyone currently involved in Village governance. The Mayor currently serves as the Zoning Enforcement Officer (ZEO)."

The consolidation report further states that "While these estimates indicate that dissolving the Village will reduce tax levies for local property owners, the key motivation behind the Village’s desire to pursue dissolution is to remove the burden of running the Village from local residents."

I’m a strong advocate for local government. But I have to tell you, running a village or a town is a lot of work. Possibly more than a village of a few hundred people can manage. Johnson City has 14,000 people. Yes, that makes it more work but also more people to do the work and to share the cost of hiring people to do the work.

It’s worth taking a look at the consolidation report to see what goes into the decision. You can find it at

W. Winter, a former resident of Broome County said:

We as taxpayers won't be able to save ourselves until we break the yoke of municipal unions in New York. As our economy deteriorates, the burden of servicing unreasonable pensions and benfits for retirees will strangle the the taxpayer. We all forget Mario Cuomo lost his governorship over the issue of tenor in our public school systems by the unions. Eventually there will be a revolt. It will be ugly. In the end, New York citizens will either win or be forced to leave the state, because of crushing taxes (sound familiar?).