Morning Read: Is Gov. Cuomo being too timid about cutting local governments?

Yesterday, former Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava spoke to local government leaders in the Adirondacks about Governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaign to reduce the number of towns, villages and school districts across New York.

“My perspective from the Local Government Unit in the Department of State is not to tell towns and villages what you need to do,” Scozzafava said.

“It’s to enter into a dialogue about how we at all different levels of government can be more effective and more efficient.”

As head of the Local Government Unit at the Department of State, Scozzafava is a leading voice on this issue.

But contrasted with Governor Cuomo’s take-no-prisoners approach to downsizing Albany, Scozzafava’s tone was downright conversational.

“It does make sense for every town and village to begin to have a discussion about how we can do things perhaps a little more efficiently regionally.”

There are currently more than 2,200 towns, villages, cities and school districts in New York.  That’s far more separate local governments than you’ll find in most states with comparable populations.

Some critics have questioned whether this gentle, collaborative approach — which has been tried repeatedly over the years — will shrink that number any time soon.

Earlier this month, the Glens Falls Post Star called for the Cuomo administration to develop a much more aggressive plan for erasing overlapping or redundant levels of government.

Letting a village administer and vote on its own demise is like asking the kids to decide whether their parents should get divorced.

They’re going to stick with what’s familiar, what’s safe and what’s known. With rare exceptions, village residents are always going to support keeping the village intact, no matter how inefficient, expensive or outdated the might be.

If the state is serious about reducing the number of redundant governments and improving efficiency at the local level, it’s going to have to come up with a far more objective method than letting the affected community directly vote on it.

One might argue that Cuomo has simply adopted the old conservative strategy of forcing government efficiencies by “starving the beast.”

He’s slashing aid for local governments and school districts, while also proposing a cap on local property tax increases.  We’ve already seen that approach force some local leaders into closer cost-saving partnerships.

This from the Adirondack Daily Enterprise:

[Tupper Lake school superintendent Seth McGowan] said the Tri-Lakes superintendents are looking at ramping up partnerships that would save money on things like business and administrative operations.

He wouldn’t get into specifics, but he did say there are some consolidating measures the three are looking at for the coming budget year and others for further out in the future.

“This is not a new idea,” McGowan said. “We’re only going to be doing more of it in the next year or two.”

So what do you think?  Is Governor Cuomo moving fast enough to shrink the thousands of local taxing entities?  Should the state even be taking on this fight?

As always, your comments welcome.

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27 Comments on “Morning Read: Is Gov. Cuomo being too timid about cutting local governments?”

  1. J Bel says:

    The current way local government is organized produces enormous and un-coordinated duplication of service. In most states, there is not an equivalent to the town in New York State. If you do not live in a city or a village, you get your services from the county. One highway department! No stopping and turning the plow around at some theoretical 19th century line. One entity repairing and repaving roads. Many of the costs for materials, fuel, insurance, electricity, and out sourced services would be reduced with one large entity as the purchaser.

    Coordinated with a county school system, the savings would be even greater. Some of these districts are very small and unable to achieve anything approaching efficiency of scale. These districts are expensive on a per student basis. There have been some attempts to use BOCES to combine positions, services, and purchasing but those efforts and subsequent savings are but a shadow of what real re-structuring would bring. After an initial period of increased investment to make the change, I believe the long-term savings to the local taxpayers and the state would be substantial. I believe that educational opportunities will improve especially for students of the smaller schools. The cost of supplies, food, equipment, fuel for heating, fuel for transportation, electricity and outside professional services would be less if there was one large bid that attracted a lot of proffers.

    I hope Gov. Cuomo makes local government consolidation the first item on his agenda after the state budget is passed.

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    The Gov should keep his nose out of local governments and fix his own bloated house.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  3. Brian says:

    If Cuomo’s smart, he’ll realize that people elected a governor, not an emperor. Imperious high-handedness may work great in newspaper editorials (the kind the Post-Star is infamous for) but it’s dodgy politics. Maybe these dissolution votes should be administered by the (NYS) Department of State or Board of Elections, but dissolutions should not occur at the whim of the governor, as is the case in Michigan.

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  4. scratchy says:

    Consolidation makes sense in some cases and would result in savings. It is unlikely, however, that consolidation would significantly reduce employee benefit costs (health insurance and pensions), which are increasing at several times the rate of inflation. More affordable pensions and health care is essential to the survival of some local governments.

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  5. J Bel says:

    I don’t see how the re-structuring of local government could take place at the whim of the Gov. Cuomo or anybody else. It would take a change in the state constitution. No easy or quick thing to do in New York.

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  6. J Bel says:

    The increase in health insurance premiums are going up for everyone and not just public employees. The cost of medical care is made up of made up of medical bills, the overhead associated with processing these bills, and the profits of the health insurance companies. The Affordable Healthcare Act is trying to address some of the problems associated with private insurance companies like taking 30% or more off the top as profit and paying huge multi-million salaries to their CEO’s and other corporate officers. The new federal law will limit the companies share to 20% of premiums. Self insured programs, there are several in this county, can run their programs for 5% or less with 95% actually paying for medical services.

    Another way the Affordable Healthcare Act is by universal enrollment which means the providers of services will not have to over-charge insurance companies to make up for those who have no insurance.

    As for pensions, the law was changed last year to try and deal with some aspects of that issue. In New York, public pensions are like annuities and are not a year by year budget item. The employers share goes up and down annually depending on the earnings of the various retirement systems. In the early 1980’s, the employers were paying as much as 21%. Currently the rate is much lower than this. There have been years when the employer’s contribution was less than the employee’s 3%. Much of the money paid out by the pension systems comes from the proceeds of investing the contributions of both employers and employees and not tax money. The private sector employers have been working very hard to destroy the private pension system and have largely been successful. Now, as we see in Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire, etc., corporate interests are attacking public sector pensions. It’s all part of “the war on the middle-class.”

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  7. scratchy says:

    “The increase in health insurance premiums are going up for everyone and not just public employees.”

    The difference is many private employers require substantial employee contributions to health plans. 13 North Country school districts, by contrast, require no employee contributions.

    http://www.cbcny.org/cbc-blogs/blogs/school-districts-should-achieve-substantial-savings-following-state-practices-employ

    http://www.cbcny.org/sites/default/files/BLOG_Table1_02022011_0.jpg

    As for pensions, the law was changed last year to try and deal with some aspects of that issue.”

    That law only affects new employees and didn’t address those currently in the system; those with more than 10 years of service still contribute nothing.

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  8. tootightmike says:

    School consolidation could also give us a Soviet-style system, where everyone is served equally and none really like it.

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  9. tootightmike says:

    Cutting pension benefits…Hmmm… It seems to me that a deal is a deal. You can’t back up and take from those who’ve already worked their lives away, who went with the program, kept their noses to the grindstone etc. What do we say…”Just kidding!”
    I think not. My own father was a member of a strong union…the kind that got rough if it was called for. He’s got a great pension, and it’s a good thing ’cause the rest of us couldn’t possibly pay for his current needs. Make no mistake though, if someone tried to curtail his long awaited bebefits…they’d need medical attention.
    If we want to cut pension spending, We’ll have to deal with current and future employees. They can fight for their own deal….just like their predecessors.

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  10. Bret4207 says:

    It truly distresses me that supporters of “strong unions” use the threat of violence at the first hint of questioning benefits, even those of a relative as in this case. I belonged to a union and don’t want my retirement earnings touched, but I’ll be damned if I’ll resort to SEIU/Teamster criminal thug actions.

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  11. Pete Klein says:

    Bret and others,
    All businesses, public and private, use the “threat of violence” in their day to day operations. It is better known as “you’re fired,” “thanks but we are giving you the pink slip” and in the case of private business – “we are moving out of town, out of state or out of the country.”
    No blood is shed but lives are ruined.

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  12. J Bel says:

    “Soviet-style system?” Perhaps you don’t understand that the most conservative states in the country, as well as most other states, use this method of organizing their school districts. Last I checked, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and more than 30 other states were not morphing into soviet republics.

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  13. Brian says:

    It’s absurd to suggest that firing someone is an act of violence.

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  14. J Bel says:

    Health insurance costs are paid for in several ways. Premiums paid by the employer, premiums paid by employees, co-pays, and deductibles. It is all money and all pays for a part of medical services. Payments made by the employees are savings to the employer whether made by the mode of co-pay, deductible, or premium.

    If the case of St. Lawrence County school employees, they wanted to avoid paying a part of the premium. They preferred to pay increased co-pays and to add new co-pays on certain items. The amount of that increase in co-pays relieved their employer, the school districts, of 8% of the premium payments they would have had to pay if there was no increase in co-pays. Anytime an employee pays any portion of a bill at the point of service, it is equivalent to lowering the premium. Money paid is money paid.

    The school employees’ representatives in the negotiations, which included teachers, nurses, bus drivers, and maintenance staff, concluded they would negotiate an increase in co-pays. In the several years before that, at least three school boards had mis-managed their budgets so badly; they nearly put their districts into bankruptcy. This way school personal reduced the cost of insurance to the districts without the money going through school board hands. In the last round of negotiations, when the co-pays basically doubled were equivalent to an 8% payment to premium. Again, money paid is money paid. Premium payments by employees may make a board member puff up and feel powerful but paying increased co-pays and/or deductibles has the same effect on cost to the district.

    During those negotiations, research done by consultants hired by the unions, NYSUT, CSEA, and the Teamsters, discovered that the health insurance plan was paying both hospitals and doctors more than other insurance companies and had been doing so for years. With that information, the board representatives were able to sign new contracts with their preferred providers which lowered their costs about 10%. On top of that, the school boards got a reduction in the mandated reserve amount from 25% to 18% which allowed them not to put any new funds into their reserve for a number of years. The result of this being a further reduction in the cost of insurance to the districts.

    As for the so called Citizens Budget Commission, do you know it is a private company with a name that is designed to deceive the public that it is some sort of neutral organization researching budget problems? The chairman of their board is a banker and broker. The vice-chair is Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board for T&H Group, Inc a large insurance and re-insurance company. The second vice-chair is the executive vice president of the Communications Group of Federal Reserve Bank of New York. All the so called commission’s leadership is big business related. Their findings are consistently pro big business and anti-worker. It was started in the 1930’s and was started by the corporate interests and wealthy people in reaction to then Gov. Roosevelt’s approach to counter acting the devastation of the Great Depression. Currently, their agenda seeks to drive a wedge between workers in the public and private sector to gain political advantage.

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  15. Bret4207 says:

    Brian, Pete- this is the threat of violence I was referring to- “My own father was a member of a strong union…the kind that got rough if it was called for. He’s got a great pension, and it’s a good thing ’cause the rest of us couldn’t possibly pay for his current needs. Make no mistake though, if someone tried to curtail his long awaited bebefits…they’d need medical attention.”

    Funny, when it’s a right winger speaking in terms like “in the crosshairs”, “don’t retreat, reload”, etc. there’s a great hissy fit over the “threat of violence”. But when someone makes a clear reference to it and it’s related to union activity then, what? That’s cool?

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  16. J Bel says:

    Like I said “some aspects”. The creation of Tier V of the retirement in NYS does only deal with the members who joined after September 1, 2009 I believe. All changes that reduce benefits are for new members. That is the way it works as it is deemed unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game.
    The 3% was paid by Tiers III and IV was suspended several years ago because of a huge surplus in the retirement fund. The 3% being paid by employees had exceeded the percentage paid by the employers for several years. The school boards even insisted on a 0% one year. Had the fools had any insight into how an annuity system works and paid in 3% in those years, the system very well have become self sustaining and they might not be paying anything (or at least very little) in now. Some districts have paid in a lower amount in dollars (percentage can be a real weasel word in the mouth of a school board member) due to a lower total teacher payroll being paid out. This was due to large numbers of senior teachers retiring who were not replaced as student population fell. Teachers who were replaced require a much lower retirement contribution since new hires receive a much lower salary.

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  17. Pete Klein says:

    People need to read their history and know what things were like before there were unions.
    Yes, in some cases unions did push too far but if unions had never existed, things would be much worse for all.
    Just about everything the non union worker enjoys today, came into existence because of unions.
    Threats of violence? When unions were first organizing, deadly violence was used against worker to try to prevent them from forming a union.
    Working conditions were horrible for many and the pay was low.
    I grew up in Detroit and know the history of unions.
    If you have health insurance, thank the unions. If you get OT pay, comp time, vacations, pensions – thank the unions even if you never belonged to a union.
    All of these benefits exist where there isn’t a union for one reason only. They exist because business needs to compete for workers. If they don’t need to compete, they won’t.
    By the way, in case you didn’t know, OT pay is penalty pay. The purpose is to encourage an employer to hire more workers. Pay extra or hire more workers.
    And if you have ever been laid off or fired, you know first hand it is a form of violence.

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  18. Bret4207 says:

    Unions had and still have their purpose. These days one of their purposes is to serve as a group of thugs under the control of the Democratic party. SEIU is the most visible group doing this. Threats of actual violence and acts of actual violence have been committed. That’s not what unions are supposed to for. In some cases it’s just another form of organized crime using the threat of violence if their demands aren’t met. I find it absurd and hypocritical that some of the same news outlets and people that decry the Tea Party as a potentially violent group completely ignore SEIU and their tactics. Wrong is wrong.

    What happened in the past has limited relevance today. What happened to union organizers and members decades back has as much relevance as the Democrat parties support for slavery pre-Civil War or for segregation in the 50′s and 60′s. Not all unions are or were subject to anti-union violence or free from criminal tendencies. What matters in this discussion is what is happening today.

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  19. Mervel says:

    I think those are valid points. If the Democratically elected government says no to unions, unions don’t have the right to use violence to reject the will of the people. It is hypocritical to “worry” about the tea party people and not the actual violence and threats made by unions and their front people.

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  20. J Bel says:

    Before anyone believes this “union thug” claim, I suggest you go to the media outlets in the location where the incidents took place. You will often find a video of what happened. You can judge for yourselves whether the claims of thugery are valid. If you are getting your information from Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” or “Newsmax” you may find their claims without merit.

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  21. scratchy says:

    J Bel,
    Interesting comments on school health insurance plans. I wonder how much difference there is in the cost of plans. It seems like money could be saved if all districts had the same plan, as that would allow them to bargain together for lower costs.

    As far as CBC goes, I’m sure they have their biases, though seem more thoughtful than other organizations on either the left or right. For example, a favorite tactic of pro-spending groups is to falsely imply that extending the millionare’s tax would bring in 5 billion this year, when it -due to calender and fiscal years starting on different months- would ony bring in about a billion this year and then 5 billion next year.

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  22. J Bel says:

    Last I checked, about two years ago, all the districts were participating in the consortium. There are several forms of the same basic plan available to the districts.

    I think it was in 2005 or 2006 that the consortium of school boards asked for bids from insurance companies. They had their own self insurance also put together a bid. As I remember, they received only a few bids. One was from a company called Pomco which was the carrier for the Jefferson County schools at that time. Another bid came from Blue Cross/Blue Shield. There might have been a third bid but I can’t remember.

    There own self-insurance plan was the least expensive. The basic reason for this was administrative costs were so low at only 2% to 3% of total cost.

    What I would like to see is an estimate of what the cost would be if the county, towns, and villages could join with the school districts. It seems the larger the group, the less it might cost on a per person basis. This might be especially true in terms of the cost of pharmaceuticals. I have read that medicine has gotten so expensive it accounts for about 20% of claims.

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  23. Bret4207 says:

    J Bel, I’ve seen the uncut videos of the SEIU thugs. There’s no denying what they did anymore than you can deny the Blank Panthers were intimidating voters outside polling places. And there’s no denying what tootightMikes implication was- mess with the unions and you get your head busted. Simple as that. It’s complete hypocrisy for the media to show a Tea Party activist carrying a rifle and doing absolutely nothing illegal or threatening over and over while completely ignoring the SEIU beatings and intimidation. That’s part of what divides this nation so.

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  24. J Bel says:

    Let us examine the last incident where the right-wing press described the actions of the SEIU members as thugs. This was the typical headline: “Striking Pocono Medical Center Workers and SEIU Thugs Protest at ESSA Bank Headquarters in Stroudsburg, Pa.” You will see a group of people trying to make a point in a way that is well inside the traditions of peaceful protest. They left the bank after about 30 minutes after making their point.

    See the video at: http://www.poconorecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20110316/MULTIMEDIA01/110319743

    Thug is defined as: A brutal person: somebody, especially a criminal, who is brutal and violent. See any thugs in this video?

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  25. Bret4207 says:

    Simply google SEIU thugs beat black man or Tea Party and you’ll find the videos. The fact is the SEIU are becoming terrorists. I just hope more unions don’t follow this trend. I’m sure you can find exaggerations of SEIU actions, just as you can find exaggerations of the free speech expressed by Tea Party activists openly carrying arms at events. Funny, free political speech that causes no physical harm makes the news and union workers (???) attacking people is ignored. There’s a problem there.

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  26. J Bel says:

    Bret 4207

    I have done as you suggested. I have found several incidents like the one you mention. I believe these instances of violence are spontaneous and rare. As they are with the Teaparty as well. I was able to find coverage of these incidents in the local press where they occurred. The amount of coverage and comment in the rightwing media is enormous and frankly overplayed for the circumstances. I don’t see pattern of organized violence here. I think we have some very emotional people losing their tempers. I would disagree with the use of the word terrorism to describe these situations.

    I also searched SEIU violence and Teaparty violence. The use of the word thugs gets you results from ideological sites instead of news sites. The bottom line is there has been inappropriate behavior on both sides. Very few of these incidents have resulted in a person being charged with a crime which makes me question how serious most of them are.

    There are real domestic terrorists in the US and their actions go far beyond pushing and shoving or a punch in the nose. Some are lone-wolf terrorists but many are small organized groups. Their behaviors are quite different from disagreements turning to the interpersonal violence as in the cases of the SEIU and the Teaparty.

    The most recent example took place in Alaska on March 17, where five members of the Alaska Peacemakers Militia were arrested by state and federal law enforcement on charges connected with a plot to kidnap or kill state troopers and a Fairbanks judge. On January 17, 2011, a backpack bomb with the potential of killing or injuring dozens of people was found along the route of a Martin Luther King Day “unity march” in downtown Spokane, Washington. Although the incident occurred in the previous year, on February 14, 2011 five members of the Minuteman Arizona Defense group were convicted murdering two American citizens of Mexican heritage. One victim was a nine year old girl who they killed by shooting her in the face. It was part of a plot to gain money to finance militia activities. These incidents are examples of what terrorism is like.

    I am not trying to justify incidents like what happened at the events you mention by saying these incidents are worse. That would be an amoral defense and all violence, excepting self-defense, is reprehensible. My point is that not all violence is terrorism. People lose their tempers and sometimes push, shove, or throw a punch. It is unacceptable. It needs to be discouraged. It needs to be stopped. From what I can see, it is spontaneous and unplanned. It’s not terrorism and both sides need to stop hyping it up for political gain.

    Wow! From reforming local government to this!

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  27. Bret4207 says:

    The problem is that unions aren’t doing this spontaneously. They clearly and openly state their intentions to “bust heads”. And for the record, you aren’t going to find and incidents of Tea Party violence. The closest you’ll come to is the alleged spitting incident which was the result of spittle flying from a guys mouth when he was yelling at a politician.

    There are kooks in every group. It appears to me that the left and it’s THUGS are doing their best to breed more violence prone kooks.

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