Thursday, November 30, 2006

You Can Never Have Too Much Government

"The More The Merrier," Say New Yorkers

A recent report issued by NYS Comptroller Alan Hevesi confirms what many off us have been complaining about for a long, long time: We have way too many layers of government.

State, county, town, village, city -- and hundreds of departments and agencies under them -- all with their own "wish list" for the holidays, each digging into our all but empty pockets.

Fiefdoms that worked so well -- at least in terms of control of both party and masses -- in the 1800s and 1900s, today fail us in terms of efficiency and cost effectiveness.

There are 4200 local governments, give or take a few, in New York State, and that doesn't include Special Districts (i.e., Water, Fire, Sanitary), public authorities (nearly 700 of them, at last count), or the plethora of taxing districts that come squarely under the influence of other local governments, such as Sewer Districts, Lighting Disticts, Refuse Disposal Districts, and the list goes on, and on, and on.

Could we do more -- or at least as much -- with less? No doubt. Does New York really need, and do New Yorkers benefit from, 932 townships, 554 villages, and some 700 seperate School Districts? We think not!

Hopefully, when Governor-elect Spitzer takes office on January 1st, one of the issues he will begin to examine is whether all of this government over the people, by too many people, at great cost to the people, is in the best interest of the people. Concluding that it is not -- no other conclusion being possible -- we trust our new Governor will heed our advice and look, wherever and everywhere, to consolidate government, where it is useful and necessary, and eliminate that which is wasteful and/or has outlived its usefulness.

"Day One, Everything changes." One of those things, if we are to thrive as viable state attractive to both economic and personal growth, must be the very system by which we are governed.
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18th Century System Does Not Reflect Today’s Changing Municipalities

New York State’s laws and historic designation of what constitutes a city, town or village have not changed despite dramatic shifts in the population and character of today’s local governments, according to a report issued today by New York State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi. As a result, New York’s basic structure of local governments does not match the current needs or circumstances of today’s municipalities.

“Significant changes have occurred since the designations of cities, towns and villages were made, meaning that many local governments are facing 21st Century circumstances while operating under 18th Century rules,” Hevesi said. “State leaders need to examine these issues to fairly address the changing needs of New York’s municipalities.”

The report analyzes the history of municipal structures in New York State, the implications of how these designations affect municipalities today, and illustrates what a modern classification system might look like. The findings of the report were shared with local government experts who provided valuable input to the report.

Local Government Changes

Since 1950, cities in New York State have lost 24 percent of their population while the populations of towns increased by 121 percent.

There are now more big towns in New York than there are big cities. For example, only 12 cities today have a population greater than 50,000, while 21 towns exceed this level.

Ten towns have populations of more than 100,000 people, with four towns larger than Buffalo. While 35 out of 62 cities have populations under 25,000, there are 60 towns and six villages with larger populations.

“We’re so used to our current structures of cities, towns and villages in New York State that we rarely pause to think deliberately about why we're structured the way we are and what difference it makes. This thought-provoking analysis shows us that our government choices are highly significant and very much in need of a fresh look,” Kathryn A. Foster, director, Institute for Local Governance and Regional Growth at the University at Buffalo, said. “It’s time to reopen the public dialogue on fundamental governance reform.”

“This report is an extremely important contribution to the ongoing discussion among scholars and policy-makers on the structure, efficiency and effectiveness of local government in New York and the foundations of state/local relations in our state,” said Gerald Benjamin, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the State University of New Paltz. “The cluster analysis used in the research clearly demonstrates that the conventional categories we use in thinking about and legislating for local government in New York rely on distinctions without differences.

There is a basis here for very serious discourse about the need for alteration of the fundamentals of local governance in New York.”

“This analysis focuses attention on the basic structure of local government, including governance, regional planning, shared services, and a number of other issues of interest to the Government Law Center. For example, under the Shared Municipal Services Incentive (SMSI) program, we’re providing regional technical assistance related to consolidations, mergers, dissolutions, cooperation and shared services,” Patricia E. Salkin, associate dean and director of the Government Law Center of Albany Law School, said. “We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the State Comptroller’s office on issues in these areas.”

Why Does Classification Matter? The legal definition of a municipality has many implications regarding how a municipality can operate, provide services or receive state aid. For instance:
Revenue sharing and many other forms of local aid are differentiated based on municipal class. This is primarily beneficial to city governments, which often receive greater aid and are generally facing greater needs than most towns or villages.

While major urban towns such as Islip and Cheektowaga face issues similar to big cities, they are not allowed under law to diversify their revenue base in the way that cities can.

The most basic municipal services, such as sewer, water, sanitation and fire protection, in towns are often provided through special districts. These systems are generally built only for a specific area and can result in under utilized and expensive systems as towns become more urbanized.

An Illustrative Method for Grouping Municipalities While New York’s local governments are usually analyzed by specific municipal class, the report used a statistical research technique known as a cluster analysis to illustrate an alternative method to classify municipalities. A cluster analysis is a statistical technique that groups entities into clusters that have similar characteristics based on structural, demographic and financial attributes of these localities, such as population, land area, median family income, median house values, poverty rate, government expenditures, costs for public safety and transportation services, and property taxes, among other variables.

The analysis revealed that, while there are similarities among local governments within a class, there are more differences that are not taken into account in New York’s existing system. From the analysis, five major clusters or classifications emerged, which include:

Major Urban Centers: Six cities and 13 towns were classified as major urban centers. They had average populations of more than 200,000, covered nearly 70 square miles, had a relatively high level of poverty (11 percent), and higher than average tax rates. Examples of municipalities in this cluster include: Amherst, Brookhaven, Buffalo, Cheektowaga, Clarkstown, Hempstead, Ramapo and Rochester.

Smaller Urban Centers (Upstate and Downstate): Two clusters emerged in this category, which were separated along regional lines upstate and downstate. These groups include most of the state’s small cities and villages that average only three to five miles in size. While these municipalities are densely populated, the small urban centers downstate are more than twice as dense as those located upstate. Smaller urban centers upstate included 46 cities, 192 villages and two towns, while the smaller urban centers downstate included six cities, 87 villages and 14 towns. Examples of municipalities in this cluster include: Peekskill, Mamaronek, Larchmont, Tonawanda, Kingston, Oswego, Alfred, Fredonia and Saranac Lake.

Surburbs. This grouping, which includes three cities, 71 villages and 172 towns, has relatively low population density, newer housing and the lowest average property taxes. Examples of municipalities in this cluster include: Saratoga Springs, Geneva, Fishkill, Riverhead, Schodack, Orchard Park and Onondaga.

Rural. This is the largest cluster of municipalities, including 610 towns and only six villages, which average about 3,700 residents with less than 100 residents per square mile. They tend to coverage a large geographic area (average 51 square miles) and have fairly low tax rates.

For a breakdown of each cluster by individual municipality, see pages 7-14 of the report.

“Starting from scratch, no one would design the system that has evolved in New York today,” Mark Pattison, deputy comptroller for local government services and economic development for the State Comptroller’s office. “Our office will continue to focus on issues such as this to generate needed discussion and work towards critical changes in our governmental system.”

Facts About New York’s Local Governments

Currently there are more than 4,200 local governments, including 932 towns, 554 villages, 62 cities, 57 counties outside of New York City and 700 school districts. The vast majority of cities, towns and villages were formed during the 1800s and there have been almost no changes since the 1920s. For instance, only three cities have been created since 1920. The total number of towns has not changed since 1900. Since 1920, 122 villages were created and 37 were dissolved.

Click here for a copy of the Comptroller's report

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