The words we use have meanings beyond their definitions, with connotations of good and bad depending on our experiences. We unconsciously rely on the connotations in reaching conclusions on the subjects discussed. Sometimes the connotations become a substitute for further study of an issue. The words can shape public opinion and, ultimately, produce a result through legislative action. "Regionalization" and "sustainability" are two of those words.
“Regionalization” became a fashionable word in late 20th century local conversations. It was promoted as the antidote to “parochialism” – a narrow self-interest or selfishness that some municipalities seemed to have – something bad. “Regionalization” implemented “regionalism” to imply that communities would take a broader perspective in their decision-making, cooperate with each other, share with each other, and achieve something for the greater good. In an age of high taxation, sharing municipal services through a regionalized approach has been offered as a way to extend services to more people at less cost.
“Sustainability” and related terms are words that are just now becoming fashionable, often used in connection with renewable resources. If something is “unsustainable” it cannot keep itself going or cannot be allowed to continue. It is something bad. If something is “sustainable” it has the ability to keep itself going with little or no effort – something good. If sustainability could be built into municipal services, governments would not have to worry about keeping the services going or increasing taxes.
Although “regionalization,” “sustainability,” and their opposites have connotations of good and bad, the connotations arise in a different manner. “Regionalization's” connotation arises from one's upbringing -- a sense of fair play. We were all taught to share. “Sustainability,” however, is something that can be measured, at least relatively if not quantitatively. If a resource is used faster than it can be replenished, the use is unsustainable – bad; but used at a slower rate makes it sustainable – it can continue forever – good. “Sustainability” lends itself to evaluation, “regionalization” does not.
Concepts of sustainability, if not the word itself, have long been used in reference to public infrastructure. Public water and sewer systems are usually found in cities and villages because the systems require a certain minimum population density to be sustainable (affordable). The amount of money available to a community obviously plays a role, with wealthier communities able to sustain more infrastructure than those less wealthy. In rural areas population density is low and public water and sewer services are seldom seen.
In the early 1990s, Utica was portrayed in local media as being parochial regarding its water supply - not wanting to share its resource with surrounding communities – not wanting to play fair. Those controlling the information flow, because they resided in the suburbs, viewed the situation from a suburban perspective, and used the “regionalization” idea to advocate for regional ownership of the Utica water supply system to make it easier for the surrounding communities to obtain water for growth. Many believed this was fair to Utica because regionalization would not only pay Utica for its system, but also remove from Utica the responsibility of having to pay off the debt for a new filtration plant. Costs could be spread over a larger area. Since Utica city finances were precarious, receiving money for its water system and getting rid of the filtration plant debt provided city leaders some relief. Shedding their parochial image made it so much the better for city leaders. So it was done ... and the Mohawk Valley Water Authority was born. A quarter century earlier similar situations took place when the Oneida County Part County Sewer District was formed and when the City of Utica cooperated with New York State to build the regional arterial highway system. All these seemed like good moves from a regionalization perspective – but were they good in the sense of creating a sustainable regional community?
SUSTAINABILITY MUST BE DETERMINED FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE RESIDENTS WHO PAY THE BILLS AND NOT THE MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENTS INVOLVED. This is because people will simply pack up and leave if their costs become unaffordable, taking their money – the lifeblood of services – with them. In the case of the regionalized water system, Utica leaders got temporary financial relief and suburban leaders got easier access to water. The Residents of all areas, however, have continued to pay the bills – as they always had – and costs have continued to increase. Sustainable?
Supplying water and sewer services to suburban locations costs more than locations within Utica because (1) water must travel greater distances through more pipes to go to and from suburban locations and (2) the number of customers per square mile is usually less, due to larger lot sizes. It requires more pipes per person to supply suburban areas with water and sewer services than in the city. It logically follows that suburban users should pay higher water and sewer rates to sustain services over the greater distances and lower population densities involved. However, because these services are now governed regionally (suburban representatives on boards would be loathe to accept higher rates for their constituents), rates for water and county sewer services throughout the Greater Utica area have been kept the same for everyone. This means that residents of the population centers (Utica and the Villages) pay to maintain more infrastructure than they actually use to enable unincorporated areas of Towns to receive services.
Another example of an infrastructure change that increased costs for Utica residents was installation of the State arterial highway system. At the time the arterials were initially designed, the bulk of the region's population and business was within Utica's corporate limits. At 100,000 people, Utica was only about 4,000 people short of being "full." Utica residents did not need the arterials because almost every one and every thing was close by. Instead, the roads were built to keep the regional economy growing -- which is probably why the Chamber of Commerce endorsed the state's plan, while at least one Utica mayor questioned its value. Faster connections to and from Utica suburbs would not have benefitted Utica residents at that time because there was little in the suburbs for them. After 45 years, the arterial did not result in “growth” but merely sprawl. People and economic activity merely redistributed themselves across the landscape.
What made the arterials a problem for Utica was that DEVELOPED properties in a city (almost at capacity) had to be demolished to install the system. This PERMANENTLY removed them from the tax rolls and necessarily increased the cost of maintaining municipal infrastructure for the remaining property owners. Many city streets became cut off and traffic was re-routed. Former busy thoroughfares became virtual dead-ends or ghost towns. While these streets had their value for carrying traffic drastically reduced, the streets still needed to be plowed and maintained. City neighborhoods, including business areas, became less convenient for residents and customers - another cost since "time is money." The increased costs resulted in lower property values -- another cost. Rising costs made remaining in Utica unsustainable for many people, and population declined. Meanwhile, the owners of suburban properties saw their values rise at little cost because arterials in the suburbs took little developed property.
Although residents of Towns have received the benefits of highway, water, and sewer services subsidized by Utica residents, the scheme that produced this result -- New York State's laws and policies -- have produced negative results for them as well. This will become increasingly apparent as time goes on.
Long time New Hartford residents, for example, may remember when there was NO Town tax. This was back when most town residents were clustered in the Villages of New Hartford or New York Mills, which had municipal services. As conditions in Utica became unsustainable, many Uticans moved to unincorporated areas of the Towns. This required (or provided an excuse for) Town government to expand, which led to Town taxes. Because Village residents are also residents of Towns, they were taxed, too, to help pay for Town services to the new Town residents, even though they were already paying their Villages for similar services. In other words, Village residents pay for more government than they need and subsidize Town government. Like Utica, village populations have declined from their highs, and for many people, the Villages have become unsustainable.
As Town taxes increase to meet the increasing demands of more development, living in the Towns will become an unsustainable proposition for some people, and they will move to the next town. If past policies continue, water, sewers, and highways will follow these people, again subsidized by the residents remaining behind who either are wealthy enough to pay the costs or are too poor to leave.
Like a smoke ring, the urbanized area will continue to expand outward across the landscape, gobbling up green fields and leaving behind underutilized infrastructure . . . until it all disintegrates.
We have already witnessed the beginning of this process. Populations of suburban towns have topped out, being relatively steady for 20 years. Regional populations have declined, with Oneida County having lost 40,000 and Utica-Rome metro down by more. WE HAVE ALREADY BECOME UNSUSTAINABLE.
The Greater Utica area is not alone. The policies, which subsidize suburban growth at the expense of central cities and villages, prevail across Upstate New York and are rooted in how New York State organizes local government. They have resulted in Upstate having some of the worst cases of urban sprawl in the country, requiring dwindling regional populations to support an ever expanding infrastructure (see “Sprawl without Growth – the Upstate Paradox” by Rolf Pendall of Cornell on the Brookings Institution's website at http://www.brookings.edu). Because of the inordinate amount of public infrastructure this region and other Upstate regions must support, it is no surprise that, when calculated as a percentage of home value, Oneida County ranks as the 24th most heavily taxed county IN THE NATION and that twenty of the twenty-three counties more heavily taxed are also in Upstate New York. In contrast, because state policies reflect the dominance of Downstate legislators in state government, Downstate counties ranked well and are still growing in population. Nassau is 237, Suffolk is 292, Westchester is 354, Queens is 1,382, New York (Manhattan) is 1,547, and Kings (Brooklyn) is 1,553. (See the Tax Foundation at http://www.taxfoundation.org).
Although our problem with sprawl is rooted in state policies, understanding the nature of the problem gives us the tools to halt the process and, hopefully, eventually return this region back to sustainability. Programs designed to create growth ever further from central cities must immediately cease. Residents should not support "growth" that is merely moving people or business out of Utica or Rome. If any incentive is given for business development, it should only be at brownfield sites that already have the infrastructure to support development in place. Plans to consolidate police or EMT services must be rejected, if they impose higher costs on Utica or Village residents. Plans to move responsibility for services to the County level must be rejected, if they increase costs to Utica or Village residents or minimize their voices in government. Planning efforts, such as the Utica Master Plan and New Hartford GEIS, must address sustainability both for the jurisdictions doing the planning and for the region as a whole.
Ultimately, the best chance to restore the area to sustainability would be to build regional sustainability right into local government through a merger of all local governments that SHARE A COMMON INFRASTRUCTURE. The new government needs to be given the responsibility for this infrastructure (primarily water and sewer services, but all "regionalized" services focused on the Utica area should be included). The elected representatives leading this new government will have a better perspective of what is sustainable for the region as a whole because they will be responsible for ALL municipal services throughout the area. They will be more likely to put the brakes on developments which impose more costs on area residents.
Without the merger of local governments as described above, the coordination required to achieve the same result will be next to impossible to achieve. . . and like an expanding smoke ring, Greater Utica will eventually disintegrate.
[The above article was originally published in the July 2010 Utica Phoenix.]