Do we need a big policy debate about local government in the North Country? Yes.

One of the weird aspects of American politics is that we generally talk and debate and bicker over the parts of our democracy that are most removed from us.

Fights in Washington draw big headlines.  Battles in Albany get a lot of attention.  But the goings-on in county seats, city councils and school boards around the North Country generally draw ho-hum responses from the public.

Which is exactly backwards.  In many states — and New York is one of them — a huge portion of the actual rubber-hitting-the-road job of governance and safety net programs happens at the hyper-local level.

No Child Left Behind, Obamacare, and the Federal Stimulus affect our lives, to be sure.  They’re like distant earthquakes that send tremors through our small towns.

But the thing that’s going to change your life — or the experience of your children — generally gets decided on a Tuesday or a Thursday night, with a couple of dozen citizens in a room hashing out the fine details.

On one level, this is a really cool system.  It puts government as close to the people as possible.

The guy (or gal) making the decision that will affect your kid’s education or your elderly mother’s home health care probably buys groceries where you buy groceries.

But there are a couple of concerns that need some attention, particularly in the post-recession era when aid from the state and Federal governments is dwindling.

First, we continue to fund a lot of these local programs (everything from cooperative extension agriculture stations to care for seniors) with property taxes.

And property taxes vary dramatically from community to community and county to county.

As a result, we’ve wound up with a situation where one town has Cadillac programs and the next town over is struggling by with jalopy-level government.

It’s also problematic when a lot of small communities make a lot of hyper-local decisions without any form of coordination or dialogue on a regional level.

One county selling off a nursing home is problematic and maybe controversial.  But if five of them — or more — are doing it at the same time?  That raises much bigger questions and at present we have no way of sorting out what it means.

And what about other issues that transcend local boundaries, from flood control to rabies mitigation? How do we resolve the feuds over fire protection that often flare up between neighboring towns and villages?

Right now, there’s not much out there to foster this kind of coordination.

The state and Federal governments mandate a certain amount of uniformity across local lines, and their infusion of cash still guarantees a minimum level of protection.

But mandates are controversial and the flow of money from on high is unlikely to be restored to pre-recession levels any time soon.

Stephen Acquario, head of the New York association of counties, has begun warning of the danger of a “social bankruptcy” in local governments around the state.

That means local agencies going it alone won’t have enough resources individually to provide the basic services required in a moral community, protecting “the most needy, the most frail population out there.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo shook up local government by pushing through a 2% property tax cap.  But it seems like more leadership may be in order to sort out what this will mean, and how local government might work better under the new regime.

Right now, it’s pretty  much sink or swim and every village and town for itself.

One step toward a bigger think about local government and its services may be the Regional Economic Development Council.  That process has helped to shape a more broad brush approach to thinking about the North Country.

Maybe a similar model is needed to think about local government and its most valuable programs.  What are the essential services that need to be provided going forward?

Are there ways that by working together some of those priorities can be sustained?

It’s not difficult to imagine a future where the current balkanized system will mean some communities muddling through or even thriving, while their neighbors fall into disastrous fiscal disarray.

That kind of checkerboard pattern of success and failure will make it very hard indeed for the North Country as a whole to thrive.

As always, your comments welcome.

 

 

 

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19 Responses to “Do we need a big policy debate about local government in the North Country? Yes.”

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  1. Paul says:

    Brain, I can appreciate all your comments here. Are you proposing some kind of consolidation? Or maybe these are just observations. There is never much support for consolidating with a partner that will drag you down in some ways, even when there may be long-term benefits.

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  2. Peter Hahn says:

    Brian- its an interesting point that we dont pay as much attention to local issues as the national and state ones and we should. Part of the problem is that most of the news as entertainment is focused on the national and maybe state level.

    We need more local news. NCPR and the Adirondack Daily Enterprise do a pretty good job at regional reporting but most regions are not so fortunate. The other big problem is that most rural areas are functionally single party governments, so there is no real incentive to discuss issues publicly, and lots of incentive to sweep things under the rug.

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  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “Governor Andrew Cuomo shook up local government by pushing through a 2% property tax cap. But it seems like more leadership may be in order to sort out what this will mean, and how local government might work better under the new regime.”

    The tax cap was an exactly 180 degree wrong-headed way of dealing with the underlying problem that the state has pushed expenses down off of its balance sheet and onto local government. Andrew Cuomo’s father (who I liked) was big on pushing expenses off the state’s books by creating Authorities (something I did NOT like about Mario) and the son is making things worse by the tax cap. I really do not understand his seeming popularity. He seems worse than Pataki to me and I didn’t like Pataki much.

    It is long past time for leaders at the state level to suck up the mandates they send down to local government and fund them (or not) through income tax and allow property taxes to stabilize. In that fashion necessary services may be funded in a more equitable fashion.

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  4. Paul says:

    So knuck what do you think is the proper way to deal with the “underlying problem”?

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  5. mervel says:

    We pay a lot for local government though property taxes, sales taxes and our state income tax.

    Brian is correct these are the folks that have an impact on our lives.

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  6. mervel says:

    As far as mandates go someone has to pay for them. So if we kick it back up we are talking about an increase in the state income tax. The underlying issue is the mandates themselves, many need to be simply done away with. But that is easy for me to say, what that means is a variety of interest groups will really make a large fuss. Since that would be a tough topic; I doubt anything will be done.

    We should get used to the status quo.

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  7. Pete Klein says:

    Brian, how can you say, “The guy (or gal) making the decision that will affect your kid’s education or your elderly mother’s home health care probably buys groceries where you buy groceries,” when much of this is dictated by either or both the state and federal governments? And to make matters worse, are underfunded or unfunded by them.
    The reality is that local governments and schools find themselves in the same boat as their constituents.
    How so? Let me give an example. You know you need to maintain your car and make repairs to your house. If money is tight and you put off maintaining either, you know the problems will get worse and result in greater expense in the future.
    Local governments are required to maintain roads and bridges by the state. When money is tight, they know the problems will get worse and result in greater expense in the future.
    What happens is the same for local governments, schools and residents. All look to where they can cut expenses to put the money where it is most needed. Sure there is some fluff. But who determines what is fluff? At the local level, maybe you let the library go. Maybe you close a nursing home or a senior meal sight. Maybe the schools drop sports, art, music. Maybe the individual stops going out to dinner, doesn’t take a vacation, drops life insurance.
    Meanwhile, what fluff is being dropped by the state and federal government? Are all the state and federal employees being laid off fluff? And how does anyone expect to turn the economy around when everyone is getting rid of their version of fluff?
    Are the super rich dropping any of their fluff, things like airplanes and excessively expensive multiple houses? Not suggesting that they do because their fluff does provide work for some. But that’s my point. As we cut back on expenses and argue about what is and isn’t fluff, we all have a hand in destroying the economy and are becoming miserable in the process.
    Am I suggesting our taxes should be higher? In some cases yes. In other cases no.
    Forget for a moment what your tax rate is and look at how many dollars you have after you pay all of your taxes whatever they might be. Do you have enough to buy the necessities? How much do you have left for fluff? Here is the problem for individuals, local governments and schools, and the state and federal governments too. What is fluff and what are the necessities?
    I think the answer to what is fluff and what are necessities is at the root of what Acquario is talking about when he speaks of the danger of a “social bankruptcy.”

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  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    “…underlying problem that the state has pushed expenses down off of its balance sheet and onto local government.”
    “It is long past time for leaders at the state level to suck up the mandates they send down to local government and fund them (or not) through income tax and allow property taxes to stabilize. In that fashion necessary services may be funded in a more equitable fashion.”

    Jeezum Crow! And you wonder when I say that people don’t seem able to understand simple written English anymore!

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  9. Walker says:

    “As far as mandates go someone has to pay for them. So if we kick it back up we are talking about an increase in the state income tax.”

    Yes, that’s right, Mervel, and the state income tax is a progressive tax paid by all New Yorkers, especially those high earners downstate. Kicking it back up to the state income tax is exactly what us North Country folk should be in favor of.

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  10. mervel says:

    I am in favor of it!

    The reality is that it is very doubtful that in a state in with some of higher tax rates in the nation, we would see a large appetite for raising income taxes. But maybe? Certainly I would support it. But at some level the problems we face locally are right now and we can’t wait for the pipe dream of outside help to take care of us all of the time, although it would be nice.

    I think there is a higher probability of getting the mandate lifted, removed or deleted than there is of funding the mandates through state wide tax rate increases.

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  11. Walker says:

    “…we can’t wait for the pipe dream of outside help to take care of us all of the time…”

    …Even though many of the costs that we face have been created by the state in the form of mandates.

    A much better solution than the 2% tax cap would have been mandate relief: each state mandate should either be paid for from state funds, or removed.

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  12. Larry says:

    We don’t need to worry about social bankruptcy; financial bankruptcy will do us in first! The plain fact is that taxes are too damned high because insane amounts of money are being spent and/or wasted (not to mention stolen) on programs that benefit no one, or only a few. Mobile command centers? Sightseeing railroads? Theater preservation? Failed industrial sites? Foreign students educated with public monies? Ineptly run nursing homes? You can’t even list all the idiotic ways money is wasted at the state and local level. That’s the real moral crisis here: spending money on nonsense while people go hungry. The debate needs to be at the state AND local level. The hot mess that is the Federal budget will have to wait for another time. Besides, change should start at the local level and work its way upward.

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  13. mervel says:

    “A much better solution than the 2% tax cap would have been mandate relief: each state mandate should either be paid for from state funds, or removed.”

    I agree. However I don’t think you should underestimate the local support for some of these mandates. Yes in the abstract everyone favors lifting a lot of them, talk specifics and there is a lot of people who are in favor of their program.

    Start with special education for example, a major mandate and a very expensive one. Or consider having to provide busing etc. Compliance with many of the ADA requirements, providing dental coverage through medicaid or other high end expensive medicaid options counties are forced to pay for, the list goes on. You start going down the list of mandates and you will see people rising up against changes.

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  14. “One of the weird aspects of American politics is that we generally talk and debate and bicker over the parts of our democracy that are most removed from us.”

    (insert aphorism about pots and black kettles)

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  15. Jon Alexander says:

    Peter Hahn: I’m not sure I agree with your belief that because a region is dominated by a single political party, the issues aren’t publicly hashed out and democracy breaks down.
    At a philosophical level, that argument might have merit, but it’s not what I see on the ground.
    Important local issues and problems tend to divide even members of the same party, and it’s not only during a caucus that those division are (illegally) hashed out.
    Prayer in public meetings, the future of the region’s public nursing homes, funding for the Gaslight Village project (an ongoing issue down here) are all divisive and split county board’s like cord wood. Those boards, in many cases, are 90 percent Republican. Sometimes the opinions vary based on a county’s geographic nature, eg. upcounty v. downcounty, while others are based more on an issue’s impact on a specific community, which is represented by a specific vocal or powerful official.
    The Horace Nye debate in Essex County is good example. Randy Douglas, the county’s Democratic Board of Supervisors Chairman, backed GOP North Elba Supervisor Robi Politi’s push to sell the facility. That sale most loudly opposed by Republican, albeit a maverick one, Tom Scozafava. Many of Horace Nye’s staff are from Scozafava’s town, while few North Elba people have ever even seen the facility. Here we see how local politics often plays out: it’s not a clean-cut political affiliations matter. It’s far more complex than that.
    - Jon Alexander

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  16. mervel says:

    The region is not dominated by the Republican Party. It votes Democratic in pretty much every election. Locally its just an affiliation, it means nothing as far as what people believe.

    But most of these local positions are volunteer positions, they are a huge hassle and you get blamed for tons of stuff.

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  17. tootightmike says:

    Oh Larry, sure there are inefficiencies at every level of government (or enterprise) but the biggest money suck of all is our military and defense spending. The federal government pushes it’s other program expenses off onto the states, and the states push whatever they can onto the counties. We are somehow blind to the fact that this single federal program drags the entire country down.
    At the other end of the scale…way down here in the local level, budget worries have created a mind-set among local elected officials that causes them to bull through on their projects without considering the will of the people. Ultimately our military and defense spending destroys the very foundations of our democracy

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  18. Larry says:

    We could (and should) debate Federal spending but this is about local government. We need to take back control from the inept local and state politicians who we have allowed to get us into the mess we’re in. Giving these people money to play with is like giving a child a loaded gun to play with. Any measure that cuts spending is a good idea as it will force everyone to re-assess priorities. The primary problem isn’t that there isn’t enough money; it’s that there’s too much.

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  19. Mervel says:

    At the local level believe me if you want to be in control go for it. These positions are largely thankless volunteer duties. There is no power structure running things, its just a bunch of people doing the best they can in a tough situation. I do think we have to look at our local priorities that is a very important process.

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