Too many local governments, but hard to streamline

Since Gov. Andrew Cuomo was attorney general, he has harped on one thing he repeated in his State of the State speech Wednesday: “We have too many local governments, and we’ve had them for too long. … We have a proliferation of government that is exceedingly expensive.”

It’s true, and the carrots that have been dangled to make consolidation more attractive haven’t worked. It’s time for some sticks, one of which is part of the property tax freeze Gov. Cuomo has endorsed.

For two years, the state would compensate local governments to freeze people’s property taxes, on two conditions: In year 1, the locality’s budget must meet the tax cap; in year 2, the locality must take concrete steps toward consolidating or sharing services with other local government bodies.

This is good, but it’s not so simple.

The governor bragged that he’s done things to help local governments reduce costs and to make consolidation easier. It hasn’t been enough. Part of the deal behind the tax cap was that reduction of unfunded mandates would follow, but that promise wasn’t kept. Much of your property tax burden was dumped on your county and school district by the state. Also, consolidation is still far from easy. A town still isn’t allowed to have a fire department, so if a village is dissolved, its fire department either goes away or becomes a fire district – a new layer of government. And after plenty of study, there’s still no good way to unknot Saranac Lake’s mess of two counties, three towns and a village: Dissolution, annexation, making the village a city – all hit dead ends. The laws on this stuff must change.

Also, consolidation doesn’t always mean lower taxes. It even makes taxes go up for some people: for instance, those who live outside a village being dissolved, or sometimes those in one of two school districts set to merge. Plus, in some rural areas like the Adirondacks, the communities are so far apart that consolidation stretches common sense.

One must also respect home rule. In some places, voters see mergers as worthwhile, as in the soon-to-be-dissolved village of Keeseville. Those in other villages, like Malone, rejected dissolution. In the 1980s, voters in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid said no to merging their school districts. These people aren’t dumb; they’re just doing what makes sense to them. What seems logical from 30,000 feet up doesn’t always work so well at ground level.

This is an incredibly thorny structural problem for New York, and we give Gov. Cuomo credit for tackling it. We agree with him that, cumulatively, there’s efficiency and savings to be gained. To successfully streamline the state’s archaic municipal map, however, will take a much more comprehensive effort than he has committed to it so far.