Monday, July 13, 2009

How to shrink our government

From the 06 July 2009 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

The New York State Senate has been at a standstill since June 8. Lost amidst all the well-deserved bad press surrounding the coup is the fact that just a few days earlier the Assembly and Senate had passed a bill that is one of the best of this session if not of all sessions of recent memory. The bill, penned not by a legislator but by attorney general Andrew Cuomo, is called the New York Reorganization and Empowerment Act and it makes it easier to consolidate or dissolve local governments in the Empire State. It has since been signed into being by Governor David Paterson and it goes into effect in late-March of 2010.

The bill addresses one of the greatest problems facing NY residents…local governments that are many and redundant, creating undue tax burdens. According to Cuomo’s office there are 10,521 local government entities in the state, representing towns, villages and special districts (such as water and refuse) many of them offering the very same services as a neighboring community, some better than others. Highlighting this duplication of efforts, there are 6,900 town special districts across the state while there are only 932 towns. According to a commission that was created by former Governor Eliot Spitzer to look into this, some $1 billion in annual savings could be had through a wide variety of consolidation measures. That’s $1 billion in property tax payments, the same mammoth tax bills that make real estate a poor investment in NY and drive people from our borders.

Unlike most state laws, this one is not a mandate. It’s not the State coming down on towns telling them they should dissolve and combine. No, this is something rather refreshing. It’s an old-school bill that recognizes that the real power comes from the people and not from the top down. It allows everyday average citizens to initiate the change necessary to make living in New York a little more palatable.

How does it work?

Suppose you live in Hartland and you wonder why you can’t share services with the town of Royalton, a similarly-rural and undeveloped town. They share a school-district, so why couldn’t these two towns that already have a common bond become one? To go about starting the process, you could ask the towns’ councils to pursue the process, during which they would have to ask for voter approval.

If the councilmen and women found your idea to be a little harebrained (or a threat to their power) and did not advance the discussion, you could advance it on your own. To do so, you would need to start a petition drive. You would need to collect signatures from 10 percent of those living in Royalton and 10 percent of those living in Hartland. Once that task is done, it goes to the polls. If a majority of the electors vote in favor of dissolution and consolidation, the town leaders must create a plan to move ahead with the cause.

Similarly, you can apply this effort to special districts as well and eliminate them within your towns. Due to special district dissolution being less threatening than town dissolution, there is one difference between the processes: If it has been initiated by the governing body, a voter referendum is not necessary.

It sounds easy enough, but, realize it has been a long time coming. When the Reorganization and Empowerment Act becomes law in 2010 it will have been 75 years since the State’s Mastick Commission first noted there were far too many local governments in New York. Think about that: State leaders have known about this problem since the Great Depression and up until now, no one had done a thing about it. But, things have changed and so have our people. In this day and age of Tea Parties, irate taxpayers, and a generally-disgusted electorate, there are plenty of individuals chomping at the bit to use this great tool by which they can put a little bit of power back into our hands. Understand, though, that it’s not a perfect bill. It doesn’t allow us to act on the elimination or combination of cities, counties, or school districts, the latter being the largest portion of our property tax bills. But, it’s a start nonetheless.

No comments: