"My goal is to merge together the operations of all of our municipal forces and then fill in areas that require police services through a department that is part of the county’s organizational structure — not apart from it,” he said in his budget address. “And then scale down the existing sheriff’s functions to focus on corrections, court security and other civil functions.”Clearly, our current structure of mini-jurisdictions is expensive and inefficient. Plop a 2-mile radius circle on a county map and you can touch upon up to 6 police jurisdictions (e.g., Yorkville, NY Mills, Whitesboro, New Hartford Town, Whitestown and Utica). Except for Utica and perhaps New Hartford, these small jurisdictions really cannot afford to maintain a lot of in-house forensics expertise. And then there is the duplication of administrative functions that must be paid for.
Overlapping jurisdictions is another inefficiency that is particularly unfair to city and village residents. The residents of the cities and villages, and those towns which maintain their own forces, already pay for police protection in their local tax. The county, however, forces these same residents to pay to provide similar services to residents in outlying areas . . . in effect, subsiding the cost of policing them . . . a cost that is likely more expensive per capita to provide because of the large territories that must be covered. Utica and New Hartford residents each pay for 911 service -- and also pay again to provide same to the rest of the county. With the same arrangement for other services (such as snowplowing) it should be no surprise that the cities and villages have higher taxes, discouraging development therein.
Consolidation must come.
That said, I do not like Mr. Picente's "top-down" approach.
For consolidation to be palatable, people need to feel that they will get value for their money -- not just save money.
Consolidation at the county level makes sense for geographically small counties like Onondaga and Schenectady, or densely populated counties like Erie and Suffolk. Consolidation at a county level should work for these two types of counties because the interests of the residents to be affected will be similar -- in the former owing to limited geography, in the latter owing to a similar environment. (Try distinguishing between the adjoining towns on Long Island and you will get the picture: everything looks pretty much the same everywhere).
Oneida County residents, however, have diverse interests, because it is geographically large with densely populated jurisdictions adjoining sparsely populated ones. A county level police force will become like EDGE, or the Sewer District, or the Water Authority . . . perceived to respond to special interests rather than the public at large.
It is neither practical, nor efficient, to provide the same level of services everywhere. Attempts to do so have resulted in sprawl, requiring the public to maintain far more infrastructure than necessary, driving expenses up and development out of the places we previously equipped for same: our cities and villages. . . . which begets more sprawl in a cyclic fashion. This creates economic "winners" and "losers," with the "winners" being the "newer" areas that are easy to develop, the "losers" being the older areas left behind -- and the quality of life in both being degraded. Of course, "winners" may also be the areas where the most influential people at any particular point in time live.
Instead of imposing consolidation from the "top down," the County should encourage consolidation from the "bottom up."
It can start by employing differential tax rates to eliminate county charges for services that residents of municipalities already provide to themselves through their city/village/town taxes. Imagine that! Only paying the county for services NOT already provided locally. No more Utica and New Hartford paying for county 911. No more Utica or village residents paying for the Sheriff's patrol or toward snowplowing county roads. Of course, this will increase expenses for people living in the outlying areas -- as it should. It costs more to service people who choose to locate at distances from everyone else. If they want the service, they either pay the county its true cost, negotiate an annexation with a neighboring jurisdiction having the service, or do without. No arm twisting -- just people being made to pay their own way.
It can continue by eliminating the tax breaks and special grants for "greenfield" developments that encourage sprawl. If private businesses need public investments, then they can at least be required to locate where infrastructure is already in place but is underutilized.
It can continue by getting out of the water and sewer businesses, and turn responsibility for these over to the municipalities served, letting the municipalities figure out for themselves how these services will be governed and paid for.
The suburban communities could NEVER have afforded the cost of sewage treatment themselves. Had the county NOT stepped in, fiscal survival would have ultimately resulted in some consolidation (by annexation) with Utica. Non-annexed suburban areas would have developed in a very different way, retaining a more rural character, because they would have depended on septic fields. We would not see the sprawl that we see today . . . Town and City taxes would both likely be lower . . . and the qualities that make people choose city or suburban life would be maintained. The county actually enabled suburban areas to avoid consolidation by creating the part county sewer district.
Consolidation is needed, but it must come from the "bottom up," not the "top down." It will not, and should not, be accepted until people know they will get fair value for their tax dollars in return.