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.