Power to the People: Local Government Consolidation Bill Passes Senate

June 03, 2009

New Yorkers are about to be given unprecedented power to change their local governments.

Today, the State Senate joined the Assembly to tackle a problem last addressed by Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 — how to let citizens and their elected representatives consolidate or dissolve our state’s unusually large number of local governments. More efficient delivery of local services through consolidation will mean lower local property taxes for New Yorkers.

New York State has four so-called general purpose governments: counties, cities, towns and villages. These are “general purpose” governments because they exist to provide an unlimited number of services to citizens. They provide everything from libraries, parks, traffic control, sewage, fire, police protection, etc.

In addition to these general purpose governments, New York State has a myriad of limited purpose governments called special districts. These governments have a very narrow mission. Often they provide only one government service to residents within their borders. For example, there might be a special park district that raises taxes and spends funds solely to maintain or develop parks. There are, in fact, dozens of types of special districts that dot the map of New York State: fire districts, water districts, beach districts, lifeguard districts, ambulance districts, and many more. Some of these districts are run by town boards; some are run by counties; and some are run by independently elected commissioners.

New York State is saddled with over 10,000 local governments. (No one knows exactly how many local government entities exist in New York State.)  Studies have shown that many are unnecessary, duplicative, inefficient, and wasteful. Each of these governments taxes New Yorkers not only for the direct provision of services, but also for administration, executive salaries, and overhead. Many of these local governments were set up decades ago (others were set up last century!) to address the needs of the population that existed at that time.

And herein lies a problem: once these governments are established, the law makes it very hard to them to be consolidated or dissolved. Indeed, the law governing consolidation and dissolution for towns, villages and special districts is a confusing and jumbled mess. Not only that, the law purports to allow citizens to petition to consolidate or dissolve a town, village or special district. In theory, if the petition is successful, the ruling bodies of the governments must at least consider consolidation or dissolution.  The law also allows local governments to hold referendums to decide the matter.

It sounds good, but in reality the current law blocks reform rather than promotes reform. The signature requirements for the petitions — and other hurdles — differ greatly depending on what type of local government is to be consolidated.  The law is so confusing that many of the few attempts at petition drives have resulted in litigation instead of consolidation. One part of the law in particular serves to disempower citizens: elected officials almost always have the power to veto a petition drive — even if a majority of voters wish to consolidate a local government.  (Since consolidation puts officials’ jobs at risk, support from elected officials is an unlikely prospect).  Even worse, sometimes only property owners can sign a petition and vote in a referendum – a rule that is an affront to democracy and carries the echo of poll taxes and pre-universal suffrage. 

Step in the Attorney General Andrew Cuomo — who recognized this problem and vowed to do something about it. He proposed a bill to reform the consolidation process. It would empower New Yorkers in towns, villages and special districts to be able to petition and vote on whether to consolidate or dissolve a special district. It would also increase the power of local governments to consolidate or dissolve themselves.

In the Senate, Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Chairwoman of the Local Government Committee and Senator Elizabeth Little introduced the legislation and worked to shepherd the Attorney General’s proposal through the Senate.

Today we saw the results of their hard work as the Senate voted to pass the bill with bipartisan support. Under the bill:

  • There is one consolidation and dissolution law that is applicable to towns, villages and special districts.  (The law applies to all special districts except school districts, which were left out of the proposal because the law governing school district consolidation is —uniquely — quite clear. Most importantly, while the number of school districts in New York have been greatly reduced, the opposite is true for other districts)
  • Empowered governing bodies can initiate consolidation/dissolution process for towns, villages or special districts
  • Empowered citizens can initiate consolidation/dissolution process for all local government entities though a simplified and fair petition process
  • All land owning requirements to petition for or vote on proposed consolidation/dissolutions are abolished

Note: For more information on the work of the Local Government Committee, go to the Committee page here.

Under the bill “power to the people” is now not just a slogan or a dream  — but a reality. The next step is up to New Yorkers like you.

Gregory Krakower is the Director of the Senate Policy Group and Special Counsel to Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A. Smith.