Friday, June 12, 2009

Dissolve Entire Towns?

Let's Start With The Special Districts First

We've suggested, tongue and cheek, and perhaps only half in jest, that with the authority to consolidate and/or eliminate local government entities in hand, residents might consider going after the whole enchilada -- dismantling town government in its entirety.

The cause is actually being advanced as we blog, and by an unlikely proponent -- the Supervisor of the Town of Rye in Westchester, New York.

As The New York Times reports, the Town of Rye presents a unique situation, composed as it is entirely of incorporated villages.

The Town's initiatives largely duplicate those of the villages, and what is done solely by the Town could readily be absorbed, presumably at a lower cost to taxpayers, by the villages should Town government vanish.

There is no such movement afoot (in mind, yes. Afoot, no) to dissolve towns here on Long Island, and, despite the desire of many to do just that -- if for no other reason than to end the insanity wrought by town government out of control -- little likelihood that such dissolution would actually save taxpayers money, or, alternatively, streamline services which would then have to be provided by other governmental units.

In the Town of Hempstead, for instance, its villages and two cities could absorb most of the functions performed by the Town. In fact, from sanitation to lighting to road repair, most villages, and the township's two cities, already handle these tasks. Some even have their own police departments, a function otherwise under the auspices of the county.

The majority of residents in Hempstead Town, however, do not reside in villages or cities, but rather, in so-called unincorporated areas, and, as such, must rely upon the Town to provide and deliver services, albeit such services are often under the purview of the Town's tentacled special districts, governmental bodies that are, at least technically, distinct and separate from the Town itself. [We all know otherwise, but that's another story for a different day.]

Who would take on the services provided by the Town were it to simply go away? Presumably, that would be the county. And what would be the cost? Would there really be a tax saving? More efficient services? Improved delivery?

Or would it just be, as we surmise, more government, once removed?

To say the county could do a better job, and at less of an expense, than the Town, would be a matter of pure conjecture. Viewing how the County of Nassau works, and at what cost to the taxpayers, the efficacy of a county takeover makes for an unseemly scenario.

Indeed, all things considered, it may well be more effective, and cost efficient, to eliminate county government (as was done in Connecticut years ago), leaving its functions primarily -- God help us all -- to the Town.

All speculation, of course, and doubtless the fodder of many a costly and time-consuming study and commission. [Alert the Rauch Foundation and empanel a Blue Ribbon task force.]

We can say, with at least a modicum of certainty, that the delivery of services at the town level can be done more efficiently, and with substantial tax savings to homeowners, by consolidating -- or eliminating, entirely -- many or all of the special taxing districts that provide, independent of the town that feeds them through the patronage pipeline, everything from garbage collection to the delivery of water to the tap.

Prime example. Hempstead Town is served by 5 sanitary districts, plus the Town's own Sanitation Department; 31 fire districts; 5 water districts, plus 2 private concerns; 3 library districts; and a host of Town-operated appendages ranging from lighting districts to parking districts to refuse disposal districts (not to be confused with the Town's sanitary districts) to sewer districts, and the list goes on, and on, and on.

Now, let's look at the numbers. One set of numbers will suffice to prove the point, unequivocally.

The 2009 tax levy (what homeowners pay) for a single sanitary district (Town of Hempstead Sanitary District 6) was $21,586,643.86.

That's almost as much as the entire tax levied by the County of Nassau for Nassau Community College ($23,647,092.49), a virtual city in and of itself, and -- get this -- more than the tax levied by the Town of Hempstead for General Purposes ($17,169,047.84).

Wow! That's a heck of a lot of trash, and this doesn't even include the levy for refuse disposal, which is an additional $53,649,070.57.

Combined, the levies for Sanit 6 and the Town Refuse Disposal District exceed, by $5,343,758, the entire General Purposes levy for the whole County of Nassau ($69,891,956.56).

Still think they can't collect and dispose of trash for less through the Town's own Sanitation Department, or, as the village of Valley Stream has found, through a private carter?

Look at this in terms of the cost to the individual homeowner, as the numbers representing total tax levies are so astronomical as to boggle the mind.

In Town of Hempstead Sanitary District 6, the 2009 tax levy for a typical homeowner for the operation of this special district alone was $733. Add in the $323 in taxes paid for the Town Refuse Disposal District, and that's $1056, or more than that homeowner pays in taxes for County Police ($780), and more than that same homeowner pays in taxes for Town and County General Purposes, combined ($425).

Indeed, it costs that Town of Hempstead homeowner in Sanitary District 6 more to collect and dispose of garbage than the combined tax levy collected to repair Town streets ($436.40), maintain Town parks ($258.74) and public parking districts ($28.38), light Town streets ($56.79), and provide services related to Town Buildings and Zoning ($73.88), such as they are (a total of $854.19).

Could be that when you have as many SUVs for supervisors as you do garbage trucks, and have to pay for the likes of a District Counsel (who also happened to be the Town Attorney and a GOP Committeeman), it runs up the tab. Could be.

And that's the story for but one of the nearly 10,000 special districts, local governments all, that tax New Yorkers to debt!

Whatever the cause and effect -- or should we say, cost and effect -- one thing is abundantly clear: Consolidation of services such as those provided by the Town's Sanitary Districts would save homeowners/taxpayers money, and reduce the size and scope of local government.

And if we ever consolidated those hundreds of school districts on Long Island -- the 60% hit on our property tax bills -- well, imagine the tax savings then!
- - -
From The New York Times:

A Wealth of Municipalities, and an Era of Hard Times

AS many recession-racked communities slash their payrolls and cut services to survive the economic downturn, Joseph Carvin is promoting a more radical solution that would cost him his job: dissolving the Town of Rye in Westchester County, where he is the supervisor.

“We’ve reached a point where the taxes are becoming unsustainable — people can’t afford to live here,” Mr. Carvin said of Rye Town, which is composed of the Villages of Port Chester and Rye Brook and a section of the Village of Rye Neck. “Something has to change.”

The proposal is part of a wave of consolidations, mergers and sharing of services being considered by local governments in the New York region as falling revenues and rising unemployment force elected officials to make an unpalatable choice between property tax increases and service cutbacks.

Recently, even some states, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, have taken to sharing services to split costs.

New York State has given $29 million over the past two years to help 140 local governments consolidate services, yielding $250 million in savings, said Lorraine A. Cortes-Vasquez, the secretary of state. Gov. David A. Paterson and legislative leaders in Albany are pushing a bill to encourage mergers.

New Jersey — which has 566 municipalities, the most of any state in the country per capita and, not coincidentally, the nation’s highest property taxes — started slashing aid to more than 300 communities with populations below 10,000 last year to try to pressure them into combining police, fire and trash collection services. Now the state is moving to encourage 20 tiny “doughnut hole” communities to merge with the larger municipalities that surround them.

Despite stiff resistance, Connecticut, which decades ago eliminated county government, is moving ahead with a plan to consolidate its probate courts.

Efforts to streamline government have encountered a backlash from residents, employees and local elected officials. Bart Russell, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, warned that the “myopic metro-mania” would not deliver the tax savings being promised and would end up costing public servants their jobs, communities their identities and residents the level of local service they had come to expect.

But as the recession grinds on, many government officials expect that the move to reduce the amount of government will intensify.

“It’s Hamilton versus Jefferson all over again,” said Joseph V. Doria Jr., New Jersey’s commissioner of community affairs and a former mayor of Bayonne. “Jefferson’s model was the small agrarian communities. Hamilton was in favor of more centralized government. And right now, Hamilton has the momentum.”

The crazy quilt of municipal governments that ring the metropolitan area grew for an assortment of personal, cultural, economic and political reasons, most having little to do with the best use of tax dollars or the quality of services. Some were established along highway routes or commuter rail lines, some to provide housing near up-and-coming manufacturing centers or to establish a political fief, and others to separate racial, ethnic or religious groups.

In New Jersey, Florham Park was founded by a wealthy couple — Florence Vanderbilt, granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Hamilton McKown Twombly — who wanted to pay lower taxes. Tavistock (population 24) was created in 1921 to sidestep the blue laws that prevented members of the Tavistock Country Club from golfing on Sundays.

The proliferation of government bodies — and the money they consume — has become the stuff of legend: New Jersey recently voted to phase out more than 20 school districts that had administrators and offices but no schools. New York State has 6,900 special taxation districts to pay for municipal water, sewer and trash collection services, and some of these districts have more cars and supervisors than workers.

In New York, nine small upstate communities are considering dissolving themselves and being absorbed by neighbors, though only one — the Village of Pike (pop. 382 ) in Wyoming County — has voted to do so.

Next could be the Town of Rye, which has an annual budget of $2.8 million to oversee parks and provide administrative services, like tax collection, for the three villages it unites. If the town disappeared, the villages would have to provide those services to their residents.

In New Jersey, one community has disbanded in recent decades, in 1997, when Hardwick Township absorbed Pahaquarry (pop. 7). Two mergers are being seriously considered in the state: one involving Sussex Borough and Wantage Township, the other between the Village and Borough of Chester.

In New York, the bill supported by Mr. Paterson would encourage county leaders to draw up reorganization plans to reduce the size and number of municipal governments and make it easier for voters to place such proposals on the ballot.

Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, who supports the bill, said that sharing services made sense for the vast majority of New York communities, “if you care more about your children than your sewer pipes.”

The most pitched battle in New York over scaling back government involves the special districts, which assess taxes for libraries, sewers, trash collection and water systems but have little accountability to voters and — until recently — have received little scrutiny from state officials.

In Nassau County alone there are more than 200 such districts that levy $500 million a year in taxes and have been criticized in audits for wasteful spending and duplicating the efforts of other government agencies.

“These districts are the last bastion of the Nassau County political machine,” said Jeff Guillot, of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a nonpartisan community group. “They hire lobbyists with taxpayer dollars to fight against bills to restrict their power.”

But advocates of small government bodies say that they can be more cost-efficient than larger bodies. And, these advocates say, smaller entities provide people the chance to get involved in local issues, preserving a hallmark of states with a strong tradition of “home rule” or autonomy in local governance.

When Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut won legislative approval this month for a plan to reduce the number of probate courts to 50 from 117, dozens of local officials converged on Hartford to protest the move, which is moving forward despite their objections.

Tom Marsh, a first selectman in Chester, said fewer courts would prove inefficient and alienate tax payers.

“All of the representatives and senators will tell you that the most fiscally accountable form of government is the town meeting,” Mr. Marsh said. “So why would we be moving away from that form of government to address a fiscal issue?”

A commission in New Jersey working on reorganizing government has tried to offer some clarity on the debate about the efficiency of large and small governments. It recently issued a report saying that, generally, government is most cost-effective when it serves populations between 25,000 and 250,000. Reed Gusciora, a state assemblyman from Princeton, is trying to force dozens of communities in his district to merge or lose state aid.

“We’ve tried everything to coax these communities to the altar,” said Mr. Gusciora, who sponsored the bill on the so-called doughnut hole communities. “What we need now is a few shotgun weddings.”

2009 The New York Times Company


  1. The trend toward consolidating the crazy quilt system of special districts we have is about as common sense as one can imagine. Larger entitities are almost always going to be able to do things more cost-effectively than smaller ones, simply because of economies of scale and enhanced negotiating leverage, among other reasons. This is certainly true in business; it is undoubtedly true in the public sector as well. And of course, while we're on the topic, the big win, at least on Long Island, is school district consolidation.

    One of the stumbling blocks getting in the way of this otherwise obvious direction, has to do with this romancticized Jeffersonian notion of "local control" as noted in the NYT article. This is truly a sacred cow, and if you look closely at the cost vs. benefit of keeping this cow alive it just doesn't make any sense. I personally don't feel that these special districts, or my local school district, afford me any meaningful control - especially when you consider that most of their important meetings and related decisions tend to happen in "executive session." Sure, there are public hearings and other forms of window-dressing, but much of it is scripted and meaningless.

    The converse of this is that consolidating adminstrative structures is not necessarily antithetical to allowing people a voice in either municipal services or education.

    All of that said, real change will occur only to the extent that there is recognition that we can't afford to keep this sacred cow around any longer, accompanied by an ovewhelming groundswell of public opinion demanding change and holding our political leaders accountable.