Special districts are in the news today in Utica, Rochester, Ithaca, and elsewhere. CNY Eco-Blog has a nice summary. The articles explain that special districts were created as a means to bring what are essentially city services into outlying areas. They also indicate that special districts are part of what is driving the high cost of government in New York State.
Our new governor has taken an interest in this issue and plans are being made to consolidate and eliminate special districts. However, with all the special interests that will vie for a piece of any proposed legislation, it will be necessary for the public to keep a watchful eye. Here, the special interests to watch out for are the developers, large landowners and realtors who benefit directly from urban sprawl. It is this blogger's fear that special districts will be eliminated, and that Towns will be given the powers to directly do those things that now often depend upon creation of special districts: sidewalks, stormwater drainage, streetlighting, etc.; essentially turning them into Villages and Cities without the name. Villages and Cities have the powers to deliver urban services because they have the population density to support those services efficiently. Towns, in general, do not.
Why is this bad? Take a look at New Hartford.
In response to developers, the Town has supported policies to extend urban services -- sewer and water -- to support new developments. New Hartford now supports the bulk of retail activity in the region. While this benefits developers and realtors, and has enabled a short term reduction in taxes, the costs of these developments are starting to kick in.
Although the Town's population is decreasing, police activity is up. Why? The retail activity becomes a site for criminal activity such as shop-lifting, and there is more traffic. The police force needed to expand and is now looking for new space . . . and the Town is seeking to borrow money to construct a new facility for them. This raises taxes in the long term for the Town residents. Meanwhile, Utica, which was the former site of the region's economic activity, already has the police facilities to take care of such problems -- facilities which Utica's taxpayers will still have to maintain -- and have to pay more for because of the loss of sales tax revenue. Why should the shift of retail activity 2 miles from Utica to New Hartford cause increased expenses for both? It's because of the jurisdictional line between them, preventing them from consolidating.
Hopefully, any changes in the laws to eliminate special districts will restrict rather than expand the powers of Towns, but, conversely, expand the powers of Cities and Villages to annex adjoining areas when increases in population density makes it practical to provide city/village services in those areas.