[This article was originally published in the November 2008 "Utica Phoenix":]
Credit must be given to Mr. Picente for starting the conversation about consolidation in local government, in this case, police services. Clearly, our current structure of mini-jurisdictions is expensive, duplicative, and inefficient.
However, Mr. Picente's proposal to regionalize police at the county level is troubling based on the county's prior experimentation with regionalization of Utica's sewer, water, and Youth Bureau services, and attempts to regionalize industrial development and 911 services. This "top down" approach has resulted in those paying for the services not necessarily being those controlling them or receiving the benefits.
For consolidation to be palatable (not just for police, but for any service), people need to feel that they will have meaningful control and will get value for their money -- not just save money.
Consolidation at the county level would make sense for geographically small counties like Onondaga and Schenectady, or densely populated counties like Erie and Suffolk, 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 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 the county is geographically large with densely populated jurisdictions adjoining sparsely populated ones. A county level police force will likely 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, but some people feel entitled to this, and that is the direction that the county has moved. This has resulted in sprawl, requiring the public to maintain far more infrastructure than necessary, driving expenses up and development out of our cities and villages which we previously equipped for same. Economic "winners" and "losers" have been created, 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 of both being degraded. Of course, "winners" have also been 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 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, but why should it not? It costs more to service people who choose to locate at distances from everyone else. If they want the service, they can 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 the county getting out of the water and sewer businesses, and turning 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 retained 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 have been lower, and the qualities that make people choose city or suburban life would have been 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 maintain control, and get fair value for their tax dollars in return.
[Be sure to pick up the December "Utica Phoenix" to read "NYRI: Manipulating 'Public Need'."]