Streamlining not so easy

Since Gov. Andrew Cuomo was attorney general, he has harped on one thing he repeated in his State of the State speech Jan 8: “We have too many local governments, and we’ve had them for too long. … We have a proliferation of government that is exceedingly expensive.”

It’s true, and the carrots that have been dangled to make consolidation more attractive haven’t worked. A?proposed property-tax freeze endorsed by Cuomo aims to offer additional incentive.

For two years, the state would compensate local governments to freeze people’s property taxes, on two conditions: In year 1, the locality’s budget must stay within the tax cap; in year 2, the locality must take concrete steps toward consolidating or sharing services with other local government bodies.

This is good, but it’s not so simple.

The governor bragged that he’s done things to help local governments reduce costs and to make consolidation easier. It hasn’t been enough. Part of the deal behind the tax cap was that reduction of unfunded mandates would follow, but that promise wasn’t kept. Much of your property tax burden was dumped on your county and school district by the state.

Consolidation of services is still far from easy. For instance, last year, Fonda voted to dissolve its volunteer fire department and contract with the town of Mohawk Volunteer?Fire Department to cover the village. While the village board’s decision was understandable, it also was easy to understand the concerns of those who were losing their own fire department that had been around for more than 100 years.

In?December 2012, Oppenheim-Ephratah school district residents narrowly voted to merge with the St. Johnsville school district. While the districts have merged, it has not been easy. In addition to complaints from parents about variety of issues, including the time their children are spending on the bus, the school board voted 4-3 to put the district’s superintendent on paid administrative leave in November – and still has not publicly stated why. It’s safe to bet no one voting for the merger expected that to happen.

Also, consolidation doesn’t always mean lower taxes. It even makes taxes go up for some people: for instance, the recent proposed merger of the Mayfield and Northville school districts was shot down by voters in Northville. While there were many concerns voiced by residents in the Northville school district, a primary one was the fact a merger would have raised their taxes in the first year – while residents of the Mayfield school district would have enjoyed a nice decrease.

However, one must also respect home rule. Whether people approve or shoot down consolidation does not reflect their intelligence. They’re just doing what makes sense to them. What seems logical from 30,000 feet up doesn’t always work so well at ground level.

This is an incredibly thorny structural problem for New York, and we give Gov. Cuomo credit for tackling it. We agree with him that, cumulatively, there’s efficiency and savings to be gained. To successfully streamline the state’s archaic municipal map, however, it will take a much more comprehensive effort than he has committed to it so far.