Mayors and town supervisors don’t hesitate to point at the state and its so-called “unfunded mandates” to explain to their constituents why the local tax burden is what it is — and not without some justification.
However, the record also shows that our localities aren’t necessarily doing all they can to help either.
There are so many municipal subdivisions and taxing jurisdictions in New York that it is a major research project just to identify and count them all.
According to the Local Government Handbook last prepared in 2009 by the state Department of State, there are 1,607 local governments in New York, each with its own governing body and taxing authority. They include 62 counties (five of which are consolidated into the City of New York), 62 cities, 932 towns and 551 villages. And that count doesn’t include the state’s 950 school districts.
In addition to the elected governments, there are nearly 7,000 “special districts” that also hold taxing authority and oversee services like fire protection, parks, libraries, water supplies and sewer systems.
Maintaining essential and popularly demanded services always requires more resources than we reflexively think it should.
The assemblyman that was this writer’s first employer explained it succinctly this way when describing the attitudes of his constituency — “I want, I want, I want; I don’t want to pay, I don’t want to pay, I don’t want to pay.”
While anger and frustration are habitually focused on taxes, few among us would willingly do without the services they sustain — state mandated or otherwise.
Therefore, efficiency is indispensible if costs are to be controlled and minimized.
This is where government consolidation comes into play. It’s also where much local government — and local taxpayer — resistance lies.
While municipalities fundamentally are administrative creatures of the state, New York’s constitution makes it relatively easy to create new localities — a legacy from times when distances were great and communication slow within this geographically sprawling state and a nearby governmental presence offered more immediate responsiveness.
Today, however, we clearly pay for more governments than we need.
Their responsibilities overlap, conflict and are frequently redundant. They regularly prevent, rather than promote, the efficient delivery of services to where they are most needed.
Saratoga County has (including its own bureaucracy) 31 local governments — two cities, 19 towns and nine villages. In addition, there are 121 special town districts —14 for fire protection, 22 for street lighting, 11 for parks, four for trash removal, 13 for sewer systems, 39 for water systems and 18 others for various other purposes.
Some will point out in response that the county’s property taxes are among the lowest in the state, so what’s the problem?
True, the county is fortunate for now to be able to rely on higher than average, tourism-generated sales tax revenues and income from housing starts and commercial development spawned by a growing population.
But these only mask structural inefficiencies.
Should an evident need to reform wait for a crisis to emerge before action is taken?
Does Saratoga County really need 152 taxing jurisdictions? Growth eventually generates its own needs and demands.
Shouldn’t government prepare itself to best meet them in advance of their inevitable emergence?
Consolidation is one theme about which Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been consistent.
At his behest as state attorney general in 2007, a law was enacted streamlining the process for consolidating governmental entities. A citizen petition requiring only 10 percent of registered voters affected can force a referendum allowing entire units of government to be abolished by majority vote.
But local governments and taxpayers have reflexively resisted or ignored this voluntary consolidation program — apparently preferring the devil they know and retention of jealously protected personal fiefdoms.
The state’s most recent attempt is the Shared Services Initiative.
Localities, under county leadership, are required to more fully examine the potential for providing services collaboratively — if not actual structural consolidations — with the opportunity to secure competitive state grants to partially underwrite their efforts.
While still permissive, the Initiative demands accountability in the form of public explanations for a decision not to act.
The program began in 2017 and goes into full gear during 2018.
It will be enlightening to observe to what extent localities — including those in Saratoga County —commit themselves to this mandated process during 2018.
Saratoga’s 2017 effort appears to have been half-hearted at best.
John Figliozzi is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.