Posts Tagged 'consolidation'

Consolidate and save

People in New York, especially those in the fifty or so counties called Upstate New York, love to complain about how high their taxes are. Granted, taxes in the state are among the highest in the country but that average is somewhat skewed by New York City. There are some good reasons why taxes are higher here than in southern states. Our climate makes highway maintenance much more expensive than in areas without the freeze/thaw cycles we have or the seven feet of snow most of us see every year. Our public schools are among the best in the country. And we take care of one another through various social programs. The deindustrialization of the Northeast has hit New York State particularly hard, significantly reducing the tax base, especially upstate. Some of these things we have no control over, others we choose for the greater good. But at least some of the reason our taxes are so high is that we stubbornly cling an antiquated governmental structure.

Take Broome County as an example. Situated on the Pennsylvania border about halfway between New York City and Buffalo the county is home to just under 200,000 people on a modest 716 square miles. Most of the county is rural with about three quarters of the population concentrated in the greater Binghamton area along the Susquehanna River valley. It is whiter than the country or the state: 87% vs. 70% for NY and 77% for the US. And it is poorer with 17.7% living in poverty compared to 15.4% for the state and 13.5% for the country. Only 6.3% of the population is foreign born which is much less than 22.5% of New Yorkers born abroad and the 13.2% of all Americans who were. Still, with an education level nearly the same as the national average, although a bit below that of the state as a whole, Broome County is fairly typical of Upstate NY.

One might think that Broome County would be managed by two governments: one city and one county. No, in fact we have 25 local governments: one county, one city, 16 towns, and seven villages. You might expect that Broome County’s 30,000 elementary and high school students would be accommodated by a single school district. Again, no. We have 12 public school districts plus a thirteenth that provides some shared services. But surely you say, the county needs only two local law enforcement agencies: city police and county sheriff. Hardly, we have five police departments not including the Sheriff’s Department, the Binghamton City police, or State University police. How about fire departments? Forty. Rescue squads? Twelve.

Let us look at some detailed numbers. All these data come from the Official Broome County website: gobroomecounty.com. Note that these are 2010 population numbers. Since then the population of the county has dropped by nearly 3% but, of course, the government has not shrunk.

The total number of elected and appointed officials at the county level is roughly 120. That includes the eleven county executive and legislative officers, 44 department heads, 47 judges and other officials, and 19 legislators. That comes to one county official for every 1,658 residents. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. When all the local governments are added in, there is one official for every 425 county residents.

In New York, counties are subdivided into cities and towns. Towns may incorporate villages as well. The cities and towns in Broome County, along with their populations and number of officials, are shown below. Urban areas are indicated by an asterisk.

Jurisdiction

Population

Officials

Residents/official

City of Binghamton*

47,376

44

1,077

Town of Barker

2,732

19

144

Town of Binghamton

4,942

14

353

Town of Chenango*

11,252

16

703

Town of Colesville

5,232

15

349

Town of Conklin

5,441

14

389

Town of Dickinson*

5,278

16

330

Town of Fenton

6,674

15

445

Town of Kirkwood

5,857

15

390

Town of Lisle

2,751

16

172

Town of Maine

5,377

15

358

Town of Nanticoke

1,672

16

105

Town of Sanford

2,407

15

160

Town of Triangle

2,946

12

246

Town of Union*

56,346

19

2,966

Town of Vestal*

28,043

20

1,402

Town of Windsor

6,274

17

369

County total

200,600

351

572

 

In addition to these are the seven villages in the county.

Village

Population

Officials

Residents/official

Deposit

819

15

55

Endicott

13,392

16

837

Johnson City

15,174

14

1,084

Lisle

320

5

64

Port Dickinson

1,641

12

137

Whitney Point

964

10

96

Windsor

916

7

131

Village totals

33,226

79

421

 

In a rational state, urban parts of the county would be consolidated into the City of Binghamton, bringing its population to roughly 148,000 which could be served easily by the 115 officials currently employed by the jurisdictions that it would comprise. The rural remainder of the county could surely be managed by a small fraction of the 183 officials we taxpayers are currently paying for in those areas—a total of one for every 286 residents.

Reorganizing the county to more closely resemble those in the south, which area residents point to as examples of great government, would trim more than 200 redundant positions supported by our taxes. Consolidating the school systems as well as police and fire departments would reduce the burden by another couple of dozen. Note that this does not mean closing schools or fire stations or police stations. It means eliminating unnecessary administrative overhead. County high schools would continue to compete in sports. Paid and volunteer fire departments would continue to work together. And the same number of police would be on the streets. The only thing that would change is that petty fiefdoms that have been in the same hands for generations would be cut. No one will miss them.

It is hard to tell what the actual savings would be, but they would be substantial. Maybe the people of Broome County do not mind paying a few hundred dollars a year for redundant government but at least they need to know what their quaint 18th century government really costs.

Time to hang up the buggy whip

A century and a half ago Endicott was a couple hour buggy ride from Binghamton and Vestal, across the river, was even farther. Johnson City was an experiment in welfare capitalism protected from its neighbors by imposing arches. Communities like Port Dickinson were tucked away miles from the city. Today, the entire Susquehanna Valley from Conklin to the Tioga County line and hills above it are a single urban area. Yet we persist in the quaint notion of the “Triple Cities.” Not only does this cost us taxpayers millions in redundant government but it results in unfair disparities in taxation and government services. Furthermore, the proliferation of small government agencies makes it difficult to hire and maintain the sort of professional talent a city of our size needs. Fixing this will not be easy because it will threaten dozens of petty political fiefdoms and will require significant reform of local taxation. But it can be done and, if we wish the area to have any chance to recover from deindustrialization, it must be done.

As the recent attempt to merge the Chenango and Chenango Forks school districts showed, skewed tax rates present a major barrier to consolidation. In that case, the residents of one district paid significantly higher school taxes than those of the neighboring one and so refused to approve the merger. That, of course, makes no sense. Broome County has taken a small step toward solving this problem by collecting centrally the taxes levied by the various towns. The next really crucial step is to establish a single assessment system for the entire County followed by a complete reassessment by an independent firm. Initially, equalization rates would be adjusted to keep taxes unchanged but over a period of years those would be eliminated so that everyone in the county paid taxes at the same rate.

That having been done, there would no longer be any reason not to consolidate the dozen school districts in the County into a single one. The savings in administrative costs would be huge and the school system would be able to promote specialties—music, theater, science— in different schools giving students more choices of stronger programs at a lower overall cost to the community. And don’t worry, the high schools would retain their identities, their football teams, and their competitions.

The next big step would be to separate the urban and rural parts of the County under two governments: the City of Binghamton for the first and Broome County for the rest. Public safety and public works departments would be combined at those levels. Eliminating a dozen towns, two villages, and innumerable small agencies will save taxpayers additional millions. And making Binghamton a city of some 150,000 will make it eligible for additional federal programs and give us more clout in Albany. But this must be done without taking an unfair toll on those who work for us. Seniorities must be merged so that those from one town are not penalized compared to those from another.

Finally, we need to reform our governmental systems. The notion that an elected official can manage a city or a county is outdated. Most really well-run communities have adopted some form of city/county manager system where a professional administrator is hired by the elected officials to run governmental functions. This not only offers stability and continuity to government but it greatly reduces the opportunity for corruption.

The way forward for our community is to create a modern, world-class government that can attract and retain modern businesses. The canals are gone along with the horse and buggies. Why are we holding on to government suited to that time and not to our own?