Cuomo To Cities: Drop Dead

So first a little history.

Way back in October of 1975, President Gerald Ford gave a speech making it clear that no Federal bailout would be forthcoming to keep cash-strapped New York City afloat.

The New York Daily News, in its inimitable fashion, distilled Ford’s comments to two blunt words (which Ford never actually uttered):  Drop Dead.

Fast forward to 2013 and we find Governor Andrew Cuomo delivering much the same message to school districts, towns and villages across New York.

In a speech last week, Cuomo argued that many local governments and school systems should cease to exist, agreeing to merge or consolidate their operations.

“If you are a school district, or a city, or a town or a county, and you are looking for a fundamental financial reform, consolidation is one of the obvious ones,” Cuomo said.

In a way, this is nothing new.  For years — going back to his time as attorney general — Cuomo has decried the thousands of separate and often layered taxing jurisdictions in New York.

His basic argument is that the balkanized system of 19th-century-era political entities is a costly throw-back and that local officials are on the wrong side of history.

“New York’s antiquated system of local government today consists of more than 10,500 governmental entities. This oversized and inefficient bureaucracy is a luxury taxpayers cannot afford,” Cuomo has argued.

In one sense, Cuomo is clearly correct.  New York does have a crazy high number of local taxing jurisdictions when compared with states of comparable population.

Many of these entities are zombie jurisdictions.  School districts with only a handful of kids.  Towns that barely exist in any meaningful sense.

Hamilton County, here in the North Country, has a county government, ten different towns and a half-dozen school districts, all for a population of roughly 5,000 people.

The people of Saranac Lake, meanwhile, are represented by two towns, two counties, a village and a school district.  For those communities, Cuomo’s message is clear.  The fiscal crisis isn’t a crisis.  It’s an opportunity.  This from the Associated Press:

Gov. Andrew Cuomo had tough words Friday for local officials facing fiscal crises and seeking more help from Albany, telling them they should consolidate services or whole governments and school districts rather than looking for relief from Albany.

Sounds like simple, tough medicine.

But in fact, the “crisis” that Cuomo is leveraging to “right size” local government in New York state is partly of his making.

Early in his first term, Cuomo pushed through a 2% property tax cap, one of his signature achievements, but he also failed to deliver on promises of mandate reform.

So even when local governments and districts merge, Albany still forces them to do a lot of costly, wasteful things, and refuses to grant local leaders the flexibility to find more efficient solutions.

It’s also a simple fact that Albany has decentralized more and more essential government services to the local level, so that counties and towns are performing many of the front-line social and public safety functions that people rely upon.

As state aid has flattened, local governments have been forced to downsize things like home care for seniors.  Nursing homes have been privatized or closed.

“Talk of consolidation is just an avoidance action by the state so they can avoid the real problem of state mandates,” Peter Baynes of the New York Conference of Mayors told the AP last week.

“If you talk to any local government in New York state, they can rattle off the consolidations they’ve made and they are squeezing all the savings they can out of shared services.”

That probably overstates the case.  There are still a lot of bend-in-the-road local taxing jurisdictions that have outlived their usefulness.  Cuomo clearly wants to see more of those governments killed off before he offers relief.

But as the governor’s “off with their heads” approach to local government faces one final hurdle:  the will of the people.

Again and again, here in the North Country and elsewhere, voters have flat rejected consolidations and mergers by overwhelming margins.

Earlier this month, voters in Glens Falls rejected a modest school district consolidation — which had reasonably strong support from local leaders and from the Glens Falls Post Star’s editorial board — by roughly 4-to-1.

So tough rhetoric aside, it’s an open question whether Cuomo’s “starve the beast” approach to taking down local governments will work.

And it’s an open question whether consolidations and mergers will produce the kind of cost savings that will allow communities to continue providing essential services without more aid and flexibility in Albany.

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58 Comments on “Cuomo To Cities: Drop Dead”

  1. Michael Greer says:

    I have an idea. Perhaps northern New York should consolidate with Vermont. Then we wouldn’t have to beg Cuomo for mandate relief.

  2. V. Burnett says:

    If Cuomo is looking for reforms in governance and funding, perhaps he should start looking at what so many experts in the field have been advocating all along; complete reform of the school district funding formula. On top of all the tremendously expensive and time consuming unfunded mandates (it is at least a two page list, front and back,) NYS has one of the most archaic, inequitable and convoluted funding structures in the nation. Changing funding structures would level out educational opportunities for students across the state and would be much less confusing, time consuming and costly at local levels.

  3. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Meanwhile Cuomo wont come clean on the proposed spin-off of the College of Nanoscale.

    “According to the proposal obtained by the AP, the new campus would have its own president, budget and board dominated by the governor’s appointees. The board would include the lieutenant governor as a non-voting member, the SUNY chancellor, and 11 other members — all gubernatorial appointees.”

    Cuomo says:
    “I don’t have inside information on it,” Cuomo said in a news conference Thursday evening. “I haven’t studied
    it, so I don’t have a firm opinion.”

    “It was the first public confirmation of the major proposal kept tightly under wraps by SUNY and state
    government since it was revealed Wednesday by The Associated Press.”

    So Cuomo expects us to believe he didn’t know anything about a plan to split the SUNY campus in Albany and provide him the opportunity to dole out 11 board positions in Albany? At the same time he apparently keeps tabs on what DOT engineers in Watertown say to the press?

  4. JDM says:

    “In a speech last week, Cuomo argued that many local governments and school systems should cease to exist, agreeing to merge or consolidate their operations.”

    5 years of Obama.

    Cuomo in charge of New York.

    I don’t know if can get any better than this!

    This is Ameritopia!

    What a great country.

  5. Dave Mason says:


    The school district vote you mention was covered in a story a week or so back and it cited the reason voters rejected was tax increases. Given the uneven nature of past state aid to schools, it seems any merger will mean higher taxes for one district and lower taxes for the other district. That sort of decision making by voters is pretty narrow. What will it take for voters to look at the bigger issue of how to we best educate our kids?

    With Saranac Lake and Lake Placid now starting a school merger study, one idea would be to try to bring in a number of other districts: Tupper Lake, Long Lake, Keene, Ausable Valley, and more to create a “super district”. That would make it clear that it isn’t about closing school A or B. It is about rethinking how our rural public education system should be organized and managed. This would allow for charter schools, one teacher union, sharing of high cost teachers that serve, for example, special needs, and so on.

    I don’t know it this is a good idea. But I think we need to start being open minded about big changes, not just what to do with school A or B, and not just about taxes going up or down by $100. Any others ideas out there in Inbox readers?

  6. Jim Bullard says:

    Many of our jurisdictional lines were drawn over a century ago as the land was being divvied up and settled. Places that were population centers then aren’t now while others have grown. The lines make no sense today. What we need is more than just consolidation of services. We need to redraw the map to fit the reality of population and land use in the 21st century.

  7. Peter Hahn says:

    From a consolidation standpoint there is a size over which there is no benefit to more consolidation. I dont know where that limit is. But clearly, there are too many governments – both too many layers and too small units. Personally, I think they (we) should eliminate the towns, and let the counties handle everything now done at the town level. (unfortunately requires constitutional amendment).

  8. Dave Mason says:

    What has happened in some small districts is that they tuition the kids to a neighboring district, but keep the old school district as a legal “non-operating” district. People in the sending district like it because they only pay a few thousand per student in tuition. People in the receiving district like it because it makes the school better (having more kids). But as the years go by, the unfairness of this arrangement (from a tax perspective) will probably blow this up.

    The route for towns is to share everything they can think of….a defacto merger. They making it legal some years down the road will be an easy choice.

  9. Paul says:

    “Again and again, here in the North Country and elsewhere, voters have flat rejected consolidations and mergers by overwhelming margins.”

    That is because folks just don’t want to give up something even if it makes sense to do so. Heck in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid voters would vote down a consolidation because neither one wants one football team and one name.

  10. Peter Hahn says:

    Paul – they could keep the two football teams and two names and still consolidate. But they wont do it anyway.

  11. newt says:

    And Placid does not have a football team.

    But Lake Placid’s town of North Elba does have the strip of Rt. 86 that generates at least 50% of Saranac Lake’s sales tax revenue, and, per Brian, our great Gov. does nothing to change that.

  12. The situation in Glens Falls is a little different.

    There’s the main GF City School district. But in the east side of town is the GF Common School district, which everyone calls Abe Wing. This was created because the east side of town is where all the factories and mills (property tax revenue) used to be and, to the extent they remain, still are.

    Abe Wing kids go to their own school through 6th grade and they pay tuition to go to the City School district from 7th on. Abe Wing residents claim a merger would’ve raised their taxes and lowered the City SD’s taxes and that’s why they overwhelmingly voted against it.

    However, the City SD actually gives Abe Wing a 20% discount per student as compared to the tuition they charge other out-of-district students, allegedly as a gesture of “goodwill”… and we can so how that was responded to. So Abe Wing’s low taxes are that way artificially, because they’re essentially subsidized by City SD taxpayers. The City SD school board should charge Abe Wing full tuition. Make them bear the full costs of their decision.

    It’s a misreading of the situation to emphasis the strong support from “local leaders.” Two of the three Abe Wing school board members actively campaigned against the merger (the president remained neutral). There weren’t really any strong voices from inside the Abe Wing district pushing for a merger. The Post-Star’s editorials have minimal influence on anyone.

  13. Mervel says:

    I think local taxpayers when it comes to school districts have three choices. Consolidate districts, go literally bankrupt either fiscally, educationally or both, or incur massive tax increases to keep the schools as they are. Due to inertia my bet would be number 2, I would favor either the first or third however.

    I do think Coumo is being clear, don’t count on Albany for more aid, you have what you have.

  14. Mervel says:

    Also these school districts are all unique situations some are better off than others. What is disturbing is that they seem unstable, it seems as if not only can they not survive on current aid formulas and local tax rates, but due to predicted future cost increases will actually need more aid next year and the year after. Which we see from above is not coming from the state so it means it must come from local taxpayers.

    But certainly if you go in with a proposed consolidation and then also say taxes are going to continue to go up anyway; most local taxpayers would say no.

  15. dave says:

    “That is because folks just don’t want to give up something even if it makes sense to do so.”

    This is why those smarties who founded the country set up a representative democracy.

    Because people will never vote away a benefit or against what they perceive to be in their own immediate self-interest.

    Theoretically, we vote for leaders who will then make these tough decisions.

    But put something like this up for a popular vote and… forget about it.

  16. tootightmike says:

    One of the largest costs, and fastest increasing cost to school districts is insurance. Just like in the health care industry, these opportunists have tremendous power to call the shots, but have no interest in health or education. These huge costs flow out of our towns, counties and school districts, and for the most part, never come back. It’s sort of like the lottery…except mandatory.

  17. Mervel: Cuomo’s being clear about that. Then again, he was also clear he would attack un- and under-funded mandates that are suffocating districts and municipalities and he hasn’t done anything about that.

    The core problem is the fundamental unfairness of having to use local property taxes to fund things that are MANDATED by state and federal governments… which make up the overwhelming majority of the budget of any school district or county.

  18. If Cuomo isn’t going to increase aid and if he insists on keep the anti-democratic tax cap, then he needs to get off his imperial duff and get the mandate relief (which Albany has control over!) he’s spent years emptily promising.

  19. Zeke says:

    Why don’t some of these govs. look at single contracts. For example; how about one teachers contract for the entire 700 +/- school districts similar to the correction officer contract. it would seem like that would save some money just form a negotiations point of view.

  20. Because expenses would be dictated centrally but raising revenues to pay for those expenses would remain local. Unless the state and feds funded mandated programs at 100%… which we know there’s less than zero chance of ever happening.

    Plus, what’s “reasonable” compensation for a profession requiring a master’s degree is different in Long Lake than it is in Staten Island.

  21. Zeke says:

    If a central entity was going to negotiate compensation then it would seem that same central entity would be in charge of coming up with the funds for that system. Are teachers in Staten Island better or worse off than teachers in Northern NY? I don’t know.

  22. Peter Hahn says:

    The teachers in Long Island are paid a lot more than the teachers in Northern New York. Probably Staten Island teachers are well paid too.

  23. Mervel says:

    Brian (MOFYC) mandate relief won’t happen because it is about providing special education, locally it won’t happen or be approved of. I don’t think this is the main reason we are having budget problems the main reason is every year we have relatively large increases in our benefits costs, largely health and pension costs. To the degree those are for special ed teachers and aids etc, yes mandate relief would help. But given that we are assuming no new state money, mandate relief would mean axing special ed, is there anyone game in your community for taking that on? Mandates are not all bad.

  24. Paul says:

    Peter the PE teacher here at my kids elementary who retired a few years ago. She was about 50, was making 90 thousand dollars a year. A fiend of mine who has been teaching elementary music in Long Island for about 15 years is making 125 thousand dollars a year. That is probably pretty comparable given the lower cost of living up here.

  25. Paul says:

    Sorry “friend” not “fiend”!

  26. Peter Hahn says:

    Median teacher salary in Utica is 49K, in Nassau county it is 61K, in Suffolk county it is 52K. I cant find statistics for Essex and Franklin counties, or St Lawrence, but I would I would guess it is at the lower end of that scale.

  27. Paul says:

    Here is all the information if you are interested. The idea that educators are low paid seems like a bit of a myth to me, and they have great contracts and good benefits. But maybe I am missing something. Many of the upstate people on the list have very hefty salaries as well.

  28. Peter Hahn says:

    Median teacher salary in Saranac lake is 49K.

    Im not sure what someone with a masters degree should get, but that seems pretty reasonable.

  29. Paul says:

    Peter everything you are looking for is there. For example the assistant principal at the SLHS makes $83,875 dollars a year. For some reason I could not pull up the principal. Or the principal of the Potsdam elementary school makes $77,083 dollars, about 10% more than he made three years ago. Glad to see that they have tightened their belts during the great recession.

  30. Paul says:

    The average lecturer at Cornell University (PhD required) is paid $51,902 dollars.

    They both should make more but I would argue that the Ivy League lecturer should certainly be making more but budget constraints won’t allow it.

  31. Peter Hahn says:

    For the teachers, the “problem” as I understand it is that the contracts are structured so that the salaries go way up right before retirement so that they get the maximum pension benefits. Seems to me police and firefighters use the same technique. Its not their fault their unions negotiate good contracts.

    As far as Cornell “salaries go – what does an assistant professor get? 95K. Thats the entry level position. Median must be much higher.

  32. Peter Hahn says:

    My guess is that a “lecturer” doesnt have a PhD. maybe an artist teaching art or a native foreign language speaker teaching that language and working on an advanced degree.

  33. Paul says:

    Peter, your guess is wrong, all the lecturers at Cornell have a PhD. And, I know a number of them personally.

  34. Paul says:

    “As far as Cornell “salaries go – what does an assistant professor get? 95K. Thats the entry level position. Median must be much higher.”

    Peter, in my opinion a person with 8-10 years of college education and 3-6 years of post doctoral work getting 95K isn’t very good. Especially when an industry related position would probably have them making considerably more. A full professor at Cornell makes about 150K at best, far less than many of the administrative people on that NYS school list.

  35. Peter Hahn says:

    well – they (we) should be paid better, I totally agree

  36. Paul says:

    Looks like the average for twelve full professors at Cornell was 160K so I wasn’t too far off. Of course these guys have to work all summer.

    Peter, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that teachers are paid too much money. I just think that we don’t have enough money to pay them. I never said that these amounts were high, it sounds like you are reading that into my comments. I did comment that a 10% salary increase during a financial crisis was probably not prudent. But you are right they are bound by the contracts. It is my opinion that Cornell Lecturers should make more money.

    My whole point which seems to have taken us on a tangent is that it looks like some upstate teachers are making a salary that may be similar relative to downstate. But maybe they are making less I don’t have time to look through the whole list and make any other comparisons.

  37. Peter Hahn says:

    In a financial crisis there other costs that go up incrementally, e.g. the price of pencils and cars.

  38. Mervel says:

    Those salaries in general are fine. I don’t think they are too high; they could be a little higher, but in general I don’t think salary or low pay is a problem for teachers in NYS. I think nationwide teacher salaries are too low, but in NYS I think we do a pretty good job of compensating teachers.

    The issue to me is not classroom teacher salaries, it is the administrative load and all of those salaries plus the raft of non-teaching quasi educational positions that make up the school system’s salary budget. (which indeed might go back to the mandates).

    None of these schools need assistant principles, in fact given the number of children one principle would be enough for the entire k-12 school if it is in one building such as it is in Canton or Potsdam.

    Look at schools in Syracuse or Rochester or NYC, they have one principle for schools that include up to two or three thousand kids, that is for one school not one district. We have to get real about our numbers they just are not going to support this sort of administrative burden.

  39. Paul says:

    Guys look I never said that anyone was getting too much money. Peter asked for some info on what teachers made and I gave him some links!

    Peter, it is interesting the Jeep that I bought new almost 15 years ago is the same price now for the same model in 2013. Some go up and some don’t. Buy one that doesn’t. Honda cars are the same sticker price for the 2013 models as last year.

  40. Peter Hahn says:

    well … teachers only went up a little. Back to the main topic. People think that instead of cutting administrative costs by consolidation etc, they can reduce teachers salaries. Not going to happen. and … it isnt a good idea anyway.

  41. Walker says:

    ” We have to get real about our numbers they just are not going to support this sort of administrative burden.”

    The Principal at SLHS gets $93,000 a year. I don’t know what the Asst Principal earns. But there are 5400 residents in Saranac Lake village alone– I have no idea what the total population of the school district is, but let’s say it’s 6500, and the Asst Principal makes $90k. That’s $13.85 per resident. I don’t think you’re going to make a real big difference firing Assistant Principals.

  42. Paul says:

    There must be many more than 6500 people paying school tax in Saranac Lake. I am paying it and I don’t get counted. And I have many nephews and many friend’s kids who are in school there so it matters to me. But almost 200K per year is almost 200K per year, in 5 years that’s a million dollars that is a lot of money, not chicken feed for their budget. What is a reasonable rate per 100K of assessed value that is a place where everyone can agree at some point.

  43. Paul says:

    Some nieces too.

  44. mervel says:

    Walker if the total SCHOOL enrollment was 6500 that would be ok.

    The fact is you need one principle for the entire school K-12. You then need a larger district that would include Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid and the smaller surrounding school districts, you may at that point have enough student population for a normal district in NYS that would need one superintendent.

    I am not talking about laying off a couple of assistant principles you need systemic basic change to the whole system. The ironic thing is you could do that and reduce class sizes and save your classroom teachers.

    Will this work? I am not sure it would indeed take an in-depth study, Morristown and other small districts in St. Lawrence County are undertaking that very study. But you have to start somewhere, what we are doing now is nothing, no plan, just lumbering from year to year laying off classroom teachers and keeping a giant administrative cost. We need a plan is all I am saying that is sustainable, the plan must not include more money from the state, but be based on what we have now and how to work with that or how to raise local taxes, which is also an option.

  45. mervel says:

    If local taxpayers want to increase property taxes to make up the difference they should be given that option. It is my understanding that this would be a substantial property tax increase, although we don’t really know as no one within the school systems is laying anything on the table and telling us what the options are.

  46. tootightmike says:

    Let’s go back to Dave’s idea of dissolving the Towns. It seems like the most sensible suggestion so far on this topic. Do the Town governments do anything that couldn’t be handled more efficiently by the County. A couple years ago, when the Village of Potsdam was weighing the question of dissolution, the Town of Potsdam was quite un-supportive of the idea, and with good reason…it would have given them a whole raft of responsibilities, costs, and considerations that they have no interest in. This pattern might not be repeated at the County level because the County already has a rather larger set of duties.
    Has there been any research into what sort of savings might be realized by managing it all from the county level? How many board positions are there?

  47. Walker says:

    “You then need a larger district that would include Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid and the smaller surrounding school districts, you may at that point have enough student population for a normal district in NYS that would need one superintendent.”

    Saranac Lake Central School District is already huge– it’s 40 miles wide, corner to corner. It wouldn’t expand it much to add Lake Placid, but adding Tupper would make it huge. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work, but it would be mighty large!

    Anyway, I think we all know the problem with these ideas– a lot of very comfortable people would be put out of their jobs, and they will use their not inconsiderable clout to oppose them. And that goes double for the idea of dissolving towns.

  48. Mervel says:

    I know what you mean Walker. But I think a case can be made that a very large district would actually in some cases help employment not hurt it. By giving individual schools more flexibility between schools that are all in one district teachers could easily transfer between schools, versus applying to start over in a new district after one tiny district lays you off after a collapse. Yes some administrators and some principles would be out of a job, but on the other hand the union would grow with a bigger district, you would see more uniformity and they would actually have more clout. A more sustainable larger system would be a stronger system. The thing with creating larger districts is that you would not have to close these village schools. Possibly you may combine at a high school level, but maybe not. Many school districts will have more than one high school. We are the odd people out in NYS, with this idea that the district is one school k-12.

    I do think this would be very hard I have no illusions but I also think this is essentially what the State is telling us to do.

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