Editorial: Pay attention to Syracuse merger

What happens there could have a significant long-term impact on all New Yorkers.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

There’s a lot more going on in the Syracuse area for New Yorkers to watch than Orangemen basketball and lake-effect snow.

And whatever happens there in the next few months could establish a model for the state when it comes to making local government smaller and less costly.

A group called the Consensus commission has proposed replacing the governments of Onondaga County and the city of Syracuse with a single government entity.

If the measure gets enough public support, citizens might get to vote on it in November.

A three-year study determined that merging the city and county governments could save taxpayers between $8.7 million and $22.9 million a year, mostly through a reduction in duplicative services.

Under the plan, Syracuse’s 10-member city council would merge with the county’s 17-member legislature under a single county executive. The new metro government would actually have more total members, with 29 legislators, each representing equal-sized districts, and four at-large county legislators.

In addition, the city and county police agencies would merge into a countywide force with an elected sheriff; the city’s industrial development agency would be dissolved, leaving a single county IDA; and local fire departments would be encouraged (not required) to merge with the Syracuse fi re department.

Short of a merger, the plan outlines ways the communities could share services or consolidate departments, saving up to $9.9 million a year.

The plan is strongly supported by the county executive, a longtime advocate for shared services and consolidation. But the city’s mayor strongly opposes it, saying it doesn’t address the city’s expensive school system, would strip the city of assets, and would disenfranchise poor and minority residents.

New York has more than 3,400 city, town and village governments, on top of 62 counties. Add to that another 762 school districts, which are responsible for the highest percentage of local property taxes. With special taxing districts, New York has about 10,500 government entities. That’s a lot of government.

But so far, even with fi nancial incentives from the state and the promise of lower taxes through elimination of overlapping services and personnel, residents around New York have been reluctant to give up local control. And when they have done so, it’s been mostly in small communities and through the merger of taxing districts.

Residents who’ve voted against municipal and school mergers have cited the fear of losing local identity, local representation and local services that smaller communities and school districts provide. Some also have doubted how much savings could be realized, since services must be provided no matter who oversees them.

Earlier this month, residents of the Chautauqua County village of Cherry Creek (population 440) voted to dissolve their village government and merge with the surrounding town of Cherry Creek. But last month, residents of the Erie County village of Depew, with over 15,000 residents, voted overwhelmingly to reject a proposal to merge with Lancaster and Cheektowaga.

Merging the governments of Syracuse (144,600 citizens) and Onondaga County (total population 468,390, including Syracuse) would signal a major shift in the tide and perhaps encourage more communities to consider it.

Government officials at all levels, along with their constituents, should be watching the Syracuse situation to see how it plays out.

What happens there could have a significant long-term impact on all New Yorkers.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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