I am writing to the Governor and State Legislators with a suggestion: an amendment to the state law to allow voters to not only petition for consolidation but to also have the power to petition for a vote on sharing services, personnel -- something less drastic than consolidation.
In 2010 a law went into effect: the NY Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act". The law provides a process for citizens to petition for a public vote on dissolving or consolidating local governments. The law applies to towns, villages, fire districts and other special districts. Although the law had the potential to reduce the costs and increase the efficiency of service delivery through economies of scale, better coordination and via the elimination of redundant services - it hasn't been very successful. Only a handful of communities across the state (most in small upstate communities) have taken advantage of the law.
Consolidation of local governments hasn't happened to the extent it should because many people are afraid of change. Some object to consolidation because they believe that their local government is run better than the entity that wishes to consolidate with them. Smaller government is closer to the people -even if it is inefficient. People like the access they have with officials at the local level and feel that their voice is more likely to be heard.
Westchester officials have been discussing consolidation for decades - with little success. If the New York State Legislature would amend the law that went into effect in 2010 and allow voters to petition for sharing personnel and some services, without consolidation, there might be less opposition. For example, voters in Greenburgh might wish to keep three paid fire departments independent and overseen by separate elected fire districts. But, they might be receptive to the concept of sharing Fire Chiefs - especially after a Fire Chief retires. Some clerical and administrative positions could also be shared among the fire districts. Residents might not want to consolidate school districts but they might be willing to share School Superintendents after retirements occur (some school districts in Westchester are paying their school superintendents over $300,000 a year, before benefits)--which could save significant dollars. There may be clerical positions that could be shared among different school districts --without consolidation, something that has been talked about for years. Greenburgh and village residents might prefer having separate police departments. But, they might want to petition for a vote on sharing dispatchers-something less dramatic.
The new law, if approved, should also provide residents of different counties with the ability to petition for a referendum to share some county services -while maintaining the independent county governments. For example, Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties could share transportation commissioners since buses currently run from one county to another. Most of the social service functions that the county governments currently provide are mandated by the state. I think some of the administration of social services among counties could also be shared--to save taxpayers significant dollars. I have previously called for the elimination of county government or consolidation of counties- Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have no county governments. NYS lawmakers are not open to the idea of eliminating county governments. But, voters might be receptive to sharing personnel, short of consolidation.
If voters would be given the opportunity to force a vote on sharing of services, personnel costs could be reduced and government would be run in a more efficient manner. My suggestion is better than doing nothing, not as effective in cutting costs as consolidation. However, it would help the state reduce the cost of governing and property taxes would also be reduced. Providing the public with the ability to force a vote (via the petition process) on sharing services/personnel is democracy at its best. It provides taxpayers with the chance to force change - even if elected officials are reluctant to rock the boat.
_ PAUL FEINER
Greenburgh Town Supervisor