When the topic of conversation turns to regional economic development, invariably EDGE's focus on Rome comes up. While EDGE bills itself as “your one-stop shop for economic development needs and business assistance in Oneida and Herkimer Counties,” a view of EDGE's website reveals a decidedly Rome-centric emphasis. Even though it is heavily subsidized by (and owes its existence to) Oneida County, why does EDGE have its offices in Rome rather than the county seat in Utica? Why does its website show nothing regarding the county's industrial park at the old County Airport in Whitestown? Why does EDGE have no programs targeting redevelopment of brownfields or small abandoned parcels and industrial sites in Utica and nearby villages like New York Mills or Oriskany?
The closure of the old Oneida County Airport (UCA) was a blow to the Utica area because it caused a loss of jobs at the airport and in the surrounding industrial park; it made the industrial park less marketable; and it made the improved access from the new Route 840 less purposeful. In spite of the old airport being fully equipped to handle the air-related needs of the entire region, somehow the County deemed it appropriate to duplicate what was already at the old airport and to move operations to the much larger facility in Rome. Now county taxes, the bulk of which come from the Utica area, are used to support a facility that not only is far larger than the region needs but one that has actually removed jobs from the Utica area. Since the old airport served everyone's needs, why was it necessary to inflict harm on Whitestown?
New Hartford and Utica residents (comprising more than one third of the County's population) pay charges on their phone bills for the Oneida County 911 system but receive no service in return. Now that these jurisdictions are considering dissolving their separate 911 systems to save money and letting the county system take over, county officials intend to impose a special fee only on New Hartford and Utica residents to continue the service. Why was it OK for these residents to have subsidized the county's service for years, but now that they need the county's services themselves, they will have to pay charges that are not levied upon other county residents receiving the same services?
In the mid-1990s, a water authority was created (with county involvement) to take over the Utica area's water system. A few years later, the authority proposed to extend the water supply to Verona even though other sources were known to be more readily available. That raised concern over whether there would be enough water for the Utica area's future needs – all the more concerning now that a court has ruled that the water supply will be limited to the amount of water used back in 1970.
Why are the needs of the Utica area – which holds more than half of the county's population and pays most of the county's bills -- overlooked or handled incompetently while the Rome area seems to get so much attention? Perhaps it is because, unlike Rome which is geographically large enough to include most of its suburban areas, there is no clear voice or policy-making body that can advance all of Greater Utica's interests.
When it contained most of the area's population, the City of Utica was Greater Utica's voice and policy maker. With the advent of the automobile, that population spread out into more than a dozen jurisdictions. The City now speaks for only about half of Greater Utica's residents. Although all these communities view themselves as separate places, they economically depend on each other. For example, no one can seriously dispute that New Hartford could not have become the retail hub of the county but for the population base of Utica and its other suburbs next door to draw upon. The communities of Greater Utica also share a common infrastructure. Their residents drink the same water and their waste winds up in the same river.
Perhaps Greater Utica's failure to move forward is the result of it being AN ECONOMIC ENTITY BUT NOT A POLITICAL ENTITY.
What should be a common public policy-making body is dissected horizontally among 12 municipalities. In addition, the "regionalized" services of water and sewer, which make "growth" possible, have been delegated to two county-affiliated agencies with narrow responsibilities. This means that public policy for the economic entity of Greater Utica is split among 14 policy-making bodies!
In the past this fragmentation resulted in the City of Utica being "selfish" with its water and sewer resources -- because Utica leaders knew that, if Utica extended water and sewer services into suburban areas, Utica would be subsidizing erosion of its own tax base.
In the present, now that water and sewer have been removed from Utica's control (but still paid for by Utica residents), the fragmentation has become obvious. Policies are made that encourage situations like the creation of more sites for offices on green fields in New Hartford, while such sites are being abandoned in Utica and the villages. Reuse of brown fields and the existing infrastructure is ignored. Greater Utica residents either lose a suburban quality of life (if they live in New Hartford) or have to travel farther for goods and services (if they live in Utica), but all bear the burden of higher taxes to maintain an ever-expanding infrastructure.
The Part-County Sewer District best illustrates how fragmented government and county-level regional solutions work against Greater Utica's interests. While the county treatment works and interceptor lines are governed by the Board of Legislators, the sewers feeding into that system are governed by city, town, or village councils. Recently, a county official complained that grease from New Hartford restaurants was getting into the county's system. There would have been no complaint if the county felt able to rectify the situation, but unless the grease also caused problems with New Hartford's sewer, there would be no incentive for the town to take action. Imagine this type of problem replicated in each municipality within the sewer district. Enforcement of sewer regulations becomes overly complicated and costly.
During the 1990s county officials allowed new town sewer lines to connect to the county's system, increasing the load of pollution spilling into the river at the Sauquoit Creek Pump Station. Since most legislators represent areas upstream of the pollution, would the situation even come to their attention? In spite of the pollution load, the county had an incentive to permit more connections: development and an increase in the county's tax base.
Now that action has been taken against the county through the Consent Order, fragmented local government presents an obstacle to the county implementing a solution. The sewers that need repair belong to several municipalities, not the county. Repairs to some village systems could drive them into bankruptcy. The county cannot just shut them down. On the recommendation of an advisory committee, the county is now seeking permission from each affected municipality to impose a uniform sewer user fee. The problem here is how to apportion the monies collected to ensure that residents of one community do not wind up paying to fix sewers owned by another. The county is still trying to figure this out because it has asked for approval of the fee without providing an enforceable written agreement detailing how the fees will be accounted for, spent, and how long they will be collected. If a solution is not implemented, the county will incur fines, but do not look to the county legislature to solve the problem. The county's fines will merely be passed on to all Greater Utica residents through their sewer fees.
What will the future bring for Greater Utica? If past practices are continued, the county or a county-affiliated authority will be relied upon to provide “regional” solutions to Greater Utica problems as they arise. Policing may be the next service to be regionalized. Expect more of the same incoherent results.
We need to admit that our fragmented system of local government has outlived its usefulness. We need to spend less time concocting poorly thought-out solutions to Greater Utica issues that do no more than preserve the status quo. Time would be better spent figuring out how we can merge a dozen jurisdictions and several districts and authorities into a new local government that gives the economic entity of Greater Utica a political presence.
While the people of Greater Utica would benefit from this new local government, the county will as well. Responsibility for location-specific services such as the sewers, water, libraries, zoos, theaters, and industrial development, for example, could be devolved to the new government. This would free the county to concentrate on social services and its traditional role of providing a governmental presence in undeveloped areas. The benefits to the county make it appropriate for the county to kick-off the process. The county should create a volunteer citizens commission with access to planning department personnel. The commission should be charged with engaging the public in developing the blueprint for constructing the new municipality.
Is now the time for a Municipality of Greater Utica? I think it is.
[The above article was originally published in the February, 2010 "Utica Phoenix."]