Friday, April 06, 2007

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A relevant and timely sampling from the Guest Editorial section of

Government Consolidation: A Concept Whose Time Has Come
by Peter G. Pollak

The consolidation movement in New York is about two decades old and has little to show for itself. Despite a rash of studies, reports and committees in the 1980s, little happened as parochial interests prevailed. Today, however, a more pragmatic attitude exists and the drive towards consolidation is not coming from academics and people at the top of the ladder, it’s percolating up from the bottom.

Villages across New York are holding their local elections this week and surprisingly consolidation is on the lips of numerous candidates. Whether we’ll see any results this time around remains to be seen, but we should understand why this is taking place and suggest some guidelines for success.

New York’s local government structure hasn’t changed much in the past 300 years. It represents a time long before mass transportation and the Internet. As a result we have towns and villages in places where time has erased the rationale for the current boundaries.

Government boundaries should exist for reasons other than history. Government jurisdictions should exist where there is a primary need or a strong rationale so that the residents of that jurisdiction can select people to present their interests in policymaking bodies. When the boundaries are artificial, needs cannot be adequately addressed and that often leads to the politics of personality.

To give concrete examples of how New Yorkers suffer today because of political entities that no longer serve a rational purpose, here are a few:

Local posts are often filled by people whose loyalty is to who appointed them rather than professional principles of fairness, equity and honesty. That’s why we see so much local corruption, cronyism, waste and nepotism.

Conflict between local jurisdictions is rampant and lacks solutions. We’ve seen this with local development agencies competing with each other to bring business to their communities when in fact they represent the same community. Talk of merging IDAs should be supported.

Waste. When you have too many small government agencies, waste becomes a way of life. Every police department needs dispatchers – even when the agency is too small to keep that person busy; every school bus department needs scheduling – even if they can’t afford the right technology to schedule routes efficiently; every department needs its own computers, copiers and offices even if these are only used sporadically.

High taxes, amateurs and unskilled people doing jobs where skilled people are needed, cronyism, nepotism, theft of services, lack of oversight. Those are the prices New Yorkers pay daily for its current structure of local government.

Is consolidation the answer? Only if it’s done properly; only if it results in more efficient delivery of services by professional employees (i.e., people who are trained, have proper tools and are properly supervised).

State government can impact whether the current undercurrent of consolidation becomes a force for betterment. Financial incentives coupled with the assistance of core of professional managers should be provided to localities wishing to consolidate local villages, towns and even counties. Cities like Schenectady, which are struggling financially, should be offered incentives to merge into their county governments.

Consolidation has been opposed as a loss of democracy. However, that’s only a code word for ‘don’t take away my little fiefdom.’ Representative government organized around rational boundaries is more democratic than government organized around historic and no longer logical boundaries because a legislative body representing logical boundaries at least has a chance to address real needs. It’s time.

Peter G. Pollak is editor of The Empire Page.


  1. Interesting points, but maybe the best hope lay with the merging of counties, not cities within counties. So much of the federal and state dollars are managed at the county level that county structures are the most duplicated presence and offer the greatest opportunity for savings.
    Cities need to address unique urban needs without the distraction of distinct suburban issues or consitituencies. To merge a city like Rochester with the Monroe County structure pits the needs of a wealthy suburb like Pittsford against a poor inner city. But if Monroe, Wayne and Ontario counties were merged, a great number of duplicated servces and office scould be managed in a much more efficeint manner (or so one could hope).

  2. Let's focus on LI. While I won't argue that Nassau County is the conduit for federal funding, it actually controls very little of the routine, day-to-day spending that goes on. Besides police and fire dispatch (which are still substantial), the county can't do much to address the garbage, water, school and fire districts, as well as villages. Each of these districts and villages has overhead that is duplicative. The personnel needed to staff these redundant functions will retire and get their pensions, which current residents will be paying for for a long time.