Monday, September 10, 2007

Reconnect . . .

In response to my "Disconnect" post, "Anonymous" had some interesting things to say:
"These last two paragraphs suggest that you have bought into the “consolidation is panacea” mentality coming out of some segments of Albany. This supposition that the many layers of government in NY are in themselves the problem. The idea that if only we could do away with towns and villages, we could save all sorts of tax dollars, eliminate parochialism, and make NY government work smoothly. The assumption that there is some “one size fits all” solution that can fix it all. The suggestion that because something (like our system of government) is old, it must be outdated. . . "

"How could diluting my representation by increasing the number of other people whose concerns are the concern of my closet representative, ever enhance my access to services? . . . "

"I think it’s great that I have a level of government close enough to me that I can speak and be heard. I appreciate that those government services that most directly impact me are the responsibility of people who live in the same neighborhood I do. I know their quality of life is on the line, too. . . "

"I agree, though, that if all governments have narrow focus, people who should be working together end up working against each other. But consolidation is the wrong “c” word to be using. If the consolidation-sayers would put the energy they’re putting into forcing us to give up our local voice into building cooperation, collaboration, and coordination instead of wrestling for control, we could work together to preserve local identity while improving regional function."
Wow! "Anonymous" sure got me thinking!

Smaller jurisdictions may make it easier for people to be heard, and to be watchdogs, over how their tax dollars are spent. Smaller government can be more responsive because it's easier to deal with one person wearing 3 hats than 3 department heads. And if the people providing my services live in my neighborhood, they will see the results that I do.

But what constitutes a "neighborhood" is a matter of perspective. There is also such a thing as being too small. Smaller jurisdictions do not have the capability to provide services such as water, sewer, places to lock up criminals, and social work. And too many problems spill beyond jurisdictional boundaries. Here's my take on our area.

New York Mills, Yorkville, West Utica, and the areas of NH and Whitestown lying in between cover 5 municipal jurisdictions, but are they different? Bicycle through them and they look very similar. They share the same water and sewer systems, and share the same local economy. "Downtown" and the cultural center (Stanley, MWP, the Aud, Zoo etc.) for all of them is Utica. People from them shop in the same places - now predominantly in New Hartford. They are ethnically similar and may even worship in the same churches. As I've noted in several posts over the last couple years, it is virtually impossible for one of these jurisdictions to do anything significant without affecting the others. The people's "interests" are virtually identical. Why shouldn't they share the same local government?

Contrast this with Rome. While Rome may look similar to NY Mills/Yorkville etc and aspects of the local economy may be shared, shopping is more Rome than NH, water and sewer systems are distinct, "Downtown" and the cultural center (Capitol Theater, The Fort, Fort Rickey Game Farm, Erie Canal Village) for them is perceived to be Rome (if not Syracuse). Rome can change its zoning and create concentrations of development and not create a ripple of impact to Greater Utica. At this point in time the interests of Romans are distinct. Romans do not need to share the same local government with people of the Mills or other parts of Greater Utica because their interests are divergent.

"Cooperation, collaboration, and coordination" sound good in theory, but are virtually impossible to put in practice. Consider the "financial officer" that New Hartford proposed to share with Whitestown. How would this person divide his or her time -- proportioned according to population (about 50-50) ? or according to assessed valuation (more for NH)? or taxes taken in (more for NH)? or number of problems? How would pay be apportioned? Who would set work priorities? Mixed allegiances and responsibilities create problems. A servant can only have one master. This is the problem with the 'shared services' idea. "Everyone" and "no one" would be in charge. Attempts at "cooperation, collaboration, and coordination" will degenerate into "competition." It cannot work. So how have we dealt with regional issues?

There is the "regionalization" approach with 2 flavors currently available in our area: "sewer" and "water."

Sewers were kicked up to the next level of government, the County, with creation of the "Part County Sewer District." Policy is set by the Board of Legislators. Roughly half the County's population is served by the District -- and half is not. Since sewer users rather than county taxpayers pay all the expenses, half of the Board of Legislators setting District Policy have no stake in the outcome of what they do. This represents a true "disconnect" and loss of control by the people needing the service.

Water was split off and became a subject of its own government: an Authority. Need I say more about loss of control? But this was also a disconnect in another sense: Decisions over water became made by people with no responsibility for other aspects of our governance. There would have to be "cooperation, collaboration, and coordination" between the water authority and other units of local government to fix this, but then we will run into "competition," which will not work.

We are in a "Goldilocks" situation: our local governments are too small to deal effectively with many of our problems, and the county level is too large . . . and creating separate governments or another layer for special issues results in a lack of coordination and competition.
Utica and its suburbs seem to share so much in common that our being separate is working against us.
Having lived in both the city and the suburbs, I honestly can not say that people are less "heard" in the city, even when it had 100,000 people.

Before doing anything we need to talk, pro and con, and weigh out our options.

But please consider MERGER as a way to reconnect people to their government, and regain control. Take Utica, its suburbs, water, sewer,
and anything else that has been split away: wipe away what exists and replace them with something new: one Municipality of Greater Utica.

It won't be easy; it won't solve all our problems; it may create new ones . . . But think about it.


Anonymous said...

Great Blog! My thoughts are parallel.

Anonymous said...

In urban areas, merger may be an answer, but I don’t agree that cooperation, coordination and collaboration can’t work there. Certainly consolidation to the county level (the idea coming out of Albany these days) isn’t the answer for urban or rural areas. Especially in Oneida County, where you so astutely point out that we have “Legislators who rubber stamp what their party bosses tell them, rather than determining what is best for their constituents.”
As you point out, authorities aren’t the answer. I agree that authorities are too disconnected from the “other aspects of our governance.” Examples of this are everywhere in the state. That’s why decisions should be made by those who are not disconnected from governance or from the citizens they represent. Which brings me back to the towns and villages.
I disagree that “Attempts at ‘cooperation, collaboration, and coordination’ will degenerate into ‘competition.’” Not all shared services in the state are handled like the sewers in the Greater Utica area. Some work smoothly and satisfy everyone involved. It’s not the methodology that’s at fault, but the people charged with its direction.
As involved citizens we need to demand that those we elect to represent us on every level demonstrate their ability to take a regional perspective when appropriate and collaborate with others to reach a solution. We need to stop rewarding officials who bolster their own position by stepping on someone else and, instead, reward officials who demonstrate that they understand that when one neighborhood gains only at the expense of the next, everyone loses over the long-term.
You use the example of a shared financial officer. You say that the effort to fairly apportion the cost of this office is impossible, but what if there were a merger and Whitestown and New Hartford became part of one municipality? What would that position look like then? Wouldn’t one of the reasons for the merger be to consolidate functions like that of financial officer? How would it be determined if that financial officer was effective? If everyone affected by the officer’s efforts is served, we’d probably be satisfied.
If Whitestown and New Hartford can decide on what they believe is a fair apportionment of the cost of this new financial officer and agree to revisit the issue periodically; adjust any disproportionate share based on the time each segment actually costs; and save both towns’ citizens tax money in the process, does it really matter if during one year or quarter one town saves a bit more than the other? Over time, without competition, everyone will win. If, as is too often the case, town officials try to establish their worth and electibility based on quick fixes that only seem to help their own constituents while completely ignoring the affects on others in the region – and we, the voters, fall for it – the status quo will remain and our little governments will continue to chop at each other instead of working together for common solutions.

Anonymous said...

For many years, discussions about "regionalization" have been occurring on a regular basis. The problem of course is that no level of government wants to lose "local" control. The school districts are a perfect example of gross inefficiency. How many do we need on top of each other?

At the County goverment level, we have seen no movement to consolidate anything. And, its not for trying. Some progress has been made for example with shared services and equipment with the DPW , but structurally nothing has changed nor do the people really want it to change ( I am talking about town, village and city people). The fact that it does not change is proof that there is no interest. The bottom line is that people have not taxed high enough yet to cause change.

If they were uncomfortable paying for the size of the government(s) they have, change would be made.

Efforts have been made to consolidate 911 for example. The City of Utica wants no part of it.

Towns want no part of losing County DPW road construction and of course everyone wants the Sheriffs Road Patrol on top of the Town and Village and State Police ( Ticket surcharge revenue is too important to the towns).

Just remember that we get the government(s) we deserve.

Anonymous said...

The first Town that should CONSOLIDATE is the Town of New Hartford.

Cannot wait to get rid of all those nasty politicians.