Should the North Country consolidate whole communities?

The last few years, North Country voters have been wrestling with the idea of eliminating layers of local government, and consolidating some services — particularly with school districts.

In Canada, local governments have been far more aggressive, bringing together political leadership, and population, into bigger clumps.

Now, there’s a debate underway in Japan over how (and if) to rebuild small villages following last year’s devastating tsunami.  This from the New York Times.

The debate here centers on the future of Onagawa’s rapidly aging and depopulated fishing villages, which, reachable only by twisting mountain roads, dot peninsulas that spread east and south of the town center here. Three other villages, located on two nearby islands, depend on a ferry that runs only three days a week for access to the mainland.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Our challenges in the Adirondacks, the St. Lawrence Valley and the Champlain Valley are often spread over vast, remote areas.  Isolation is an issue.  So is our rugged terrain and our costly infrastructure.

And then there is the simple reality that, these days, people prefer to live in larger communities.  In Japan, according to the Times, the disaster brought these big questions to a head.

So after the tsunami destroyed all 15 of the fishing villages that make up part of Onagawa, Nobutaka Azumi, then the mayor, proposed a reconstruction plan that seemed sensible enough: consolidate the villages.

Having just a few centralized communities would save the town money, Mr. Azumi said, and perhaps increase their chances of long-term survival.

But the village elders fought back, saying they wanted the government to rebuild their ancestral villages so that they could spend their last years there.

Younger residents, many of whom supported consolidation but were vastly outnumbered, were left grumbling among themselves.

Obviously, the North Country’s situation is very different.  We don’t have the “clean slate” that the tsunami forced up the Japanese.

But it strikes me that economic and demographic forces may be creating much the same dynamic.

Perhaps it’s time to think about shifting more of our tax dollars, more of our public sector investment, more of our school and infrastructure dollars, to pay for hub communities — investing in large enough towns and villages that they might have the critical mass to survive long-term.

Another challenge for us is that, as with the Japanese, the decisions here are made by a predominately aged class of politicians, many of them entrenched in local government for years or even decades.

In many cases, it’s difficult to imagine the kind of innovative risk-taking that might be needed to save individual communities, or to merge forces.

On the other hand, some of this process is probably already  happening organically.

As school district enrollments dwindle and close, and as services are focused in hub communities, we may find ourselves clumping up by default.

But I wonder if this evolution might be less painful, less risky, if we tried to make some of these decisions deliberately.  As always, your comments welcome.

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33 Comments on “Should the North Country consolidate whole communities?”

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  1. Peter Hahn says:

    If we really want less government and (importantly) less expensive government, then consolidation is probably the only way. There are just too many layers of local government, and too many tiny school districts.

    The obvious way to do that would be to eliminate the town layer. We could have counties and villages. That would mean a constitutional amendment which won’t ever happen. Consolidating school districts would also make a lot of sense – they could share administration and get enough students for some of the specialty classes – e.g. AP classes.

    But none of it seems likely to happen.

  2. Pete Klein says:

    No! Other than forcing people out of one town/village/hamlet into another, the idea is absurd. You would still have the roads, the sewer and water systems to deal with and pay for.
    As far as the schools are concerned, just how far would anyone want their children to be bused?
    Ideas like these sound like a plan coming from extreme environmentalists who want all the year-round residents kicked out of the Adirondacks – for their own good, naturally.

  3. Peter Hahn says:

    Pete – you are missing the point. No one is suggesting that we eliminate road repairs or bus students to distant locations. Rather the idea is to make the administrative district larger so there wouldn’t be as much redundancy.

  4. It’s one of those things that sounds great in theory but always gets hung up on the details. In my area, several local villages have voted on dissolution so they would revert back into their constituent towns. They were all defeated. These things usually have more to do with a vague sense of loss of identity or control, which ends up trumping economics (which shows that money is NOT the only thing people care about in terms of quality of life, contrary to conventional wisdom).

    One thing would be to make it so that any village would by definition stand on its own and not be part of a town. It’s absurd that village residents can have to pay taxes both to village and town governments. Such redundancy serves no benefit.

    As for Pete Klein’s comment, it seems more like a reflexive green bashing than anything else. I can see how this issue has anything to do with “extreme environmentalists.” If anything, it closer to the mentality that taxes is the only factor in quality of life.

  5. And to the Ontario analogy, I suspect would be an insurrection in the Adirondacks if a discredited Albany tried to impose such consolidation. Give heavy incentives? Sure. Shove it down people’s throats? No.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    I agree with Brian not NCPR.
    The point of my post was to shake up the thought process.
    I don’t subscribe to the idea that some have about environmentalist but I put that in because I know some will think like that.
    We live in small communities and are being faced with some though choices. But I would rather have us make the choices than have our “betters” in Albany shove things down our throats for our own good.
    Not everything can be about the bottom line of economics because the bottom line is just that. The bottom. The pits.

  7. Walker says:

    Brian – MOFYC not NCPR writes: “One thing would be to make it so that any village would by definition stand on its own and not be part of a town. It’s absurd that village residents can have to pay taxes both to village and town governments. Such redundancy serves no benefit.”

    Agreed, the present situation is absurd. But if you simply removed the villages from the towns, you’d strip a lot of towns of a whole lot of their tax base. Maybe we could give village residents a tax credit that would reduce their town taxes. Or the village could make a payment to the town based on actual services. But I think you’d have to come up with some revenue stream from the village taxpayers to the town.

  8. jeff says:

    Shhhh Let’s do it and not tell anybody about it or our property value will deflate before we can sell. I’m heading… I won’t say where but they don’t salt the roads so my car will last longer and my tax money will go further. Somehow their kids still get to public school on a lot less tax money.

    I think county consolidation is a good first step. The system we have is based on the pre-automobile era. Towns grew around mills and railroads and major intersections. We can go 25 miles in a car in half an hour but only 8 miles or so in a wagon and 2 miles on foot. We can gerrymander according to a one hour driving radius. Or reduce our number of counties by a third. It would however lead to more pay to legislators for the increased workload but don’t increase the number of legislators. Also dissolve town highway care and create a countywide system.

    And while we’re at it, stop spending money on airplane seats to tertiary airports within two hrs drive of a secondary airport (Albany, Syracuse, Buffalo). Sure there will be a lot of spittin and sputterin because the tertiary communities will plead community development because for businesses to come in they want ammenities like colleges and arts and airports, and food chains and concerts and…. Well that gets back to point one. If ya don’t like bein so far from the plane, move.

  9. oa says:

    Smart post, Mr. Mann. School districts need to consolidate, at least in my county.

  10. Gary says:

    People need to think about the benefits of “regional” schools. Yes, there should be tax advanages but at the top of the list should be our young people. My son attended a high school in a Rochester suburb. Upon graduation he had taken eight AP courses. When he applied to RIT he was credited with almost a year of course work.
    In the north country it is very difficult to offer AP courses when you only have four or five students who sign up. This problem is compounded when you have school districts cutting stafff in an attempt to stay under the 2% tax cap.
    Our young people will need a high quality education if they are going to compete in a global economy.
    The main argument has always been travel time. If you think about it we already have “regional” programs in BOCES. Students travel a distance to attend these centers. So, why not regional high schools?

  11. Gary says:

    Is long distance learning an alternative to a regional high school? When long distance learning first hit the Rochester area I was involved with Monroe BOCES 1. School districts pay a hefty fee to BOCES to set up and maintain a system. You have contractual issues with the unions. Distance learning does not lend itself to any hands on course. Scheduling times between schools is a huge problem. Extra help, impossible. Getting homework, tests back and forth a problem. The school district I was in dropped it after three years!

  12. TomL says:

    In most places I have lived (Indiana, California), school districts are far larger that ours – typically the whole county. That does NOT necessarily mean consolidation of schools, or terribly long bus rides. It just means that administration and specialty programs are consolidated. Much, much more efficient than what we have here. Imagine the savings alone if there was only one school district superintendent and assistant superintendent for the whole county!

    Similarly, there are village/city governments and county governments – townships have very little function or taxing authority. This is is counties far more populous and with far more complex problems than we have here in our North Country counties. It would be far more efficient to have the counties take over the administrative roles of the town, and would result in very little loss of local decision-making, but alas I don’t see it happening in New York State.

  13. Ann Melious says:

    Perceptions in the Adirondacks are colored by “how it used to be.” Change takes a tremendous force of will, and even small corporations fail to effect it. Consider the age of voters in our towns and villages and in many cases, you have a recipe for stasis.

  14. Pete Klein says:

    People don’t seem to have a problem paying for junk toys and expensive vacations but do seem to have a problem paying for roads and schools.
    This goes right along with people wanting the military to defend them but have very little interest in serving any time in the military.
    Have we become a very selfish society?

  15. Ken says:

    “Should the North Country consolidate whole communities?”

    Hell Yes!

    Does it make sense that every township have their own fiefdoms of school boards/administrators, roads/grounds crews, offices/employees ……?

    Sure it does if the recipients of such jobs are members of the local PTB clubs and recipients of the perks therein. How about countywide school systems with one superintendent of “schools”? How about countywide road maintenance? How about countywide property and school tax collection? How about ……?

  16. Dave Mason says:

    Interesting ideas, for sure, Brian. The Japan analogy is interesting. Here are a couple of thoughts:

    Villages are the only layer of government that voters can directly choose to delete or add. So it better add value, or else. And a number have been dissolved over the years.

    I can imagine Towns merging, so a particular Town would simply have more hamlets under it’s care. It would definitely save money. It wouldn’t mean much loss of control. Town leaders could come from a larger pool of candidates. Towns could be clear about what services are or are not available in different hamlets.

    Changing school districts to, for example, the county level, does not necessarily mean closing schools but merging administrations. And it could provide flexibility to use charter schools and merging of special ed needs to lower the cost of mandates. None of this needs to threaten the local school. We are already moving in this direction.

    Most everyone wants lower taxes, right? Well then it follows that we have to be creative about these things.

  17. jeff says:

    I think some are not seeing what Brian’s opening suggests. Moving people into concentrated communities is the point. It is so much more efficient to heat an apartment building than separate structures for the same number of people.

    I am more interested in consolidation of goverment services but it would be more efficient to concentrate residences. Think of the old town system in New England where the pasture land was out of town, except for grazing on the town green. Much like old Europe. Or look at prarie towns where services are in town and large ranches surround the towns. In Russia it was centralized towns.

    Cities and universities have central heat plants- easier to service and add exhaust scrubbers. Also easier to organize public transportation and wifi or broadband services and deliver mail and packages. The other angle would be to place the solar panels out on the expanses of land away from town, in the pastures perhaps.

    The greatest loss would perhaps be the concept of pioneer and its freedom. Neighbors would complain of grill smoke on the neighbor’s balcony, the music selection of the neighbor, the design of the neighbor’s door mat. We have too many building codes as it is for non-attached housing. And if you want a larger residence? How would that work? Go before a board to justify your wants? Levittown for the 22nd century.

  18. Dave Mason says:

    @ Jeff

    Agreed, this is the core question facing the Adirondacks: Are we willing to give up on small dying towns and if we agree (unlikely in my opinion) what is the process for turning out the lights. It has happened many times before in the region, before the existence of government safety nets…see: Tahwaus

    We rural dwellers like to think of ourselves as some how ‘green’ but the facts say this is all wrong. The city dwellers are the green people. Perhaps we are second and suburbs are third, but city dwellers win this race. At least I believe that is clear. Your example of old Europe is still valid today. Go see rural Europe and few live there – it is all farmed but people live in the villages.

    That said, I’d welcome other points of view and facts to support the opposite point of view.

  19. tootightmike says:

    If we really want more affordable government, we could stop being the worlds biggest military. We could stop spending money supporting belligerent states in the mid-east. We could work toward positive progress instead of weapons systems and sales.

  20. Peter Hahn says:

    If, for example, we had one county highway superintendent rather that one for every town, we would save a lot of money. There would be tradeoffs, but we might even come out ahead on service.

  21. Gary says:

    Peter: I think you hit on a good point. I would guess many of the savings might be offset by new expenses. The real benefit could be an increase in service. Case in point, a regional high school would save monies in many areas but would show increases in other. The real benefit would be the increased educational opportunities for students.

  22. Peter Hahn says:

    AP classes are the obvious example, but art and music might also benefit.

  23. mervel says:

    A countywide school district would also be better for teachers (not necessarily administrators). For example right now when canton has budget problems their teachers get laid off and maybe can re-apply at a different district, say Massena. If you had one school district you could offer optional transfers to teachers within the district as one area shrank and other areas grew for example. You would have a larger pool of qualified teachers to best optimize classroom sizes across the entire county.

    It would be much more flexible.

  24. mervel says:

    It could really be classic win-win, the unions would also be better off as one countywide union would be more powerful and have more negotiating power than 18 individual unions each scrapping for 18 different contracts with a bunch of very different tiny little school districts. The students would be better of as they would get more selections and more course options, and you could still maintain elementary schools where they are now.

  25. Pete Klein says:

    There is an article in the Post Star this morning about how builders of apartment complexes are growing while the sale on new, private homes are relatively stagnant.
    I have long maintained there is a greater need for decent, affordable apartments in the Adirondacks than there is a need for affordable houses. My reasoning is simple. Those entering the workforce and those exiting are for the most part looking for an apartment. If you want to attract and or keep either the young or old, you need to get beyond the mindset of the single family home. This can also be true for two to four person families. The days of large families is pretty much over. Also, if you are living in an apartment, you face far fewer problems if you need to move in search of a job. A house can be a real ball & chain under certain circumstances.

  26. tootightmike says:

    Maybe another idea worth considering, as far as schools are concerned…Instead of consolidating, what would happen to a school district that dropped out of the state system of endless, un-funded mandates? How much money flows in each direction?

  27. Dave Mason says:


    There is no legal way for a public school district to drop out of the state system. And there is no way to simply not have public schools.

    For school districts that have multiple locations, a particular school can become a charter school and that is a way out from under some mandates for that school….but a whole district. A district with a single location has no way out.

    One reason for consolidation of districts with one location is to enable some location to become charter schools and consolidate costly mandated offerings into other locations – special ed for example – to get some scale advantages.

  28. Dave Mason says:

    Suppose we make the Blue Line a new county. Adk County, with a population about equal to other midsize counties in NYS.

  29. Guest says:

    While this comment is not central to the discussion about consolidation, the Village of Tahawus in Newcomb is not an example of a dying Adirondack town that had lost population or services. It was a busy mining company town built on top of a rich vein of ore.

    The buildings and residents of Tahawus were moved by truck in 1963 by the National Lead Company to expand mineral extraction operations. The houses, church etc. were relocated to the Winebrook area of Newcomb.

    See and Adirondack history sites.

  30. Dave Mason says:

    I was referring to the old long abandon upper works.

  31. tootightmike says:

    What if the North Country seceded and became part of Vermont? Whenever I drive across that line, I start to notice a difference, be it economics, taxes, or what, between NY and VT, and it looks greener on the other side. Is it?

  32. Mervel says:

    Be sure to check out the price of homes when you cross the border.

  33. Mervel says:

    Although I agree, it sure does look different, I think figuring out why would be very interesting?

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