Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hamilton thrives,, Buffalo dives

How consolidation and regional planning saved a Rust Belt city

Since 1970, Erie County’s population has shrunk slightly, from a high of 1.1 million to today’s 925,000. Yet this shrinking population has spread out over 75 percent more land area. Cornell planning professor Rolf Pendall, among others, has documented the widespread phenomenon in New York State of sprawl without growth.

The Lundine Report offers New York Governor David Paterson an opportunity to help struggling cities.

Academic analysts and some community activists have been upset about runaway suburban sprawl because of its negative economic, ecological and social consequences. In New York State, sprawl is a fact of political life.

But the recent release of the Lundine Commission report holds some small glimmer of a promise that that may change—because buried in an appendix to that report is a little gem of an analysis of New York State law concerning Home Rule.

Home Rule has concerned governors for a long time because Home Rule is usually the rationale for micro-local management of services, and for micro-local control of land-use planning. Former Governor Eliot Spitzer asked Stan Lundine, the former Jamestown mayor who served as Mario Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, to chair a commission on how to make local government more efficient. Lundine and his colleagues (including former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, UB planning professor Kate Foster, and others) came up with 75 recommendations on how to make government work better.

And along the way, the Commission addressed Home Rule—the nice-sounding name for the practice whereby Albany lets suburbs destroy cities. Under Home Rule, suburban jurisdictions get to do their own land-use planning and zoning, set up their own local economic-development operations, and take actions that enable new subdivisions even when there’s housing-market oversupply—and all the while get subsidies from Albany to do so.

The question now is: Will Governor David Paterson ignore or embrace this report?

Fiscal crisis, reform opportunity

There’s nothing new under the sun.

In 1992, Governor Cuomo created a commission on reforming local government. Among its recommendations: Make city-county consolidation easier. Nothing happened. In 2002, Governor George Pataki created a commission on reforming local government. Among its recommendations: Make city-county consolidation easier. Nothing happened. Now, in 2008, Governor David Paterson has just taken delivery of a report from Eliot Spitzer’s commission on reforming local government. Among its recommendations: Make city-county consolidation easier.

Former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra proposed legislation and a plan for city-county consolidation in 2004. The politics of Medicaid, sales tax, and the Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority wiped that plan out of existence.

Meanwhile, just across the Niagara River from Buffalo, up the road apiece past the strip joints, wineries, and orchards, there is an old, dirty, cold industrial city and its suburbs that took a different path.

Instead of assembling study groups and commissions over the past 16 years, the province of Ontario—analogous to the State of New York—explained to the city of Hamilton and the county of Wentworth in 1997 that the city and the county needed to do a Who Does What commission, and then to come up with a plan for amalgamation. “Amalgamation” is Canadian for what we call city-county merger.

In 1997, the city of Hamilton and the county of Wentworth merged into the Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth.

In 2000, the Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth took the next step and merged with six suburban towns, analogous to our Tonawanda, Amherst, Cheektowaga, West Seneca, Lackawanna, and Hamburg.

Now it’s the Regional City of Hamilton. It took just four years to get it all done.

The consequences for the urban region have been pretty dramatic. Hamilton is, certainly, fortunate: It’s close to Toronto, even commutable. Its steel plants still make steel. Its port still brings in big freighters. But its old problems—a very ugly Mafia presence, lots of badly polluted sites, intractable poverty—have been managed better in an environment of managed cost. When Canadian economists like Enid Slack of the C.D. Howe Institute advise against sprawl and advise in favor of urban density, they count up all the costs (or “externalities”) that American planners and urban economists tend not to—because the Canadian analysts tend to ignore old municipal boundaries when calculating the impact of planning and management decisions on regions. Why? Simple: Economies straddle boundaries. And if boundaries interfere with economies, then boundaries need to go.

What municipal evolution hath wrought

In Ontario, concern over sprawl is not left to gadflies and environmentalists. It’s a matter of official action. This is probably because Ontario does not have an endless supply of land that can be put to agricultural use. For our neighbors, economic self-interest is the mother of all planning.

Planning. In the American vocabulary, the term “planning” has an anti-populist ring to it. “Planning” is something that elites do in order to force their elitist will on red-blooded Americans. “Planning” is alleged to be inconsistent with “freedom.” Just ask the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where worship of the late Austrian economist Fredrick Hayek, the father of all anti-planners, requires a daily rhetorical genuflection.

Governments do plan. Towns plan. But when they plan within their own tiny municipal boundaries, they screw up regions—because economies are regional. Economies cross municipal boundaries.

The Regional City of Hamilton has a regional plan. Everything is in the plan, which looks ahead to the year 2020: roads, public transit, sewers, where workspace is going to go, where people are going to live, green space, all of it. Check out the Web site for the GRIDS plan (the Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy) and you can see that it encompasses not just Hamilton and its immediate region, but the entire Niagara Peninsula.

That’s because it’s in Canada’s national interest—fiscal, economic, environmental, agricultural—to have affordable public services for a slowly but steadily growing population.

And there’s a bipartisan consensus. The Liberals under current Premiere Dalton McGuinty are opposed to suburban sprawl. The Conservatives under former Premiere Mike Harris—who put forth the Who Does What commission and who instructed, and facilitated, the Hamilton city-county merger—were also opposed to suburban sprawl.

The result: The province took action. The study commission was formed. Its report was released. Then its report was implemented.

A “state interest” in New York State

The Web site for Hamilton tells it all. Everything in government service is there: social services, roads, beaches, permits, real-estate matters—everything that used to be handled by the towns, the city, or the county is all handled by one entity now. It’s logical.

One of Giambra’s last legislative initiatives was a county-wide planning board. The legislation was the fruit of several years’ work that had begun with his re-creation of the two-county regional planning effort that his predecessor had spiked. The best anybody can determine, this first-ever proposal for a county-wide planning function—so that no subdivision, strip-mall, or other development could happen in Erie County anywhere but inside the area already served by existing sewer lines—is sitting in a file cabinet somewhere in the bowels of the Erie County Legislature.

But now there’s something even better than one county-level initiative. It’s the Lundine Commission report, and the aforementioned recommendation to enable city-county mergers—as well as this new gem of a legal interpretation of Home Rule.

Here’s the jewel: New York State, Lundine’s report says, can declare that an issue is a “state interest,” and instruct municipalities and school districts to undertake actions—including merger, consolidation, joint planning, and other innovations.

In the current New York State budget, about $1.5 billion of the state’s budget goes into general, unrestricted aid to local governments. (There are more than 4,500 units of government outside the nine-county New York City metropolitan area.)

Governor Paterson announced that he has a $5 billion to $7 billion deficit this year, and up to a $25 billion deficit over the coming four years.

Poverty would seem to be a legitimate concern of New York State.

Government duplication and fragmentation and expense would seem to be a legitimate concern of New York State, too, especially when regional economies suffer and cost the state more money.

Thus it would seem a fiscally opportune moment for the governor to instruct his administration that the recommendations of the Lundine Commission report (or the Pataki report, or the Cuomo report) should be implemented. Not only could he save some money, he could also start the process of ending the self-destruction that Upstate’s sprawling, shrinking urban regions seem committed to.

An example of successful amalgamation—and of Rust Belt recovery—is literally on our doorstep. For the price of an email to Ontario, Governor Paterson could ask some folks in Ontario to share their views on how to get it done here.

Notes and Links:

[1] Pendall, "Sprawl without growth," Brookings Institution report.

[2] Lundine Commission report, including the appended analysis of Home Rule in New York:

[3] The Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy plan:

[4] Hamilton website:

1 comment:

Fred Harriman said...

As Japan faces an ever aging population and shrinking tax base for local governments, amalgamation is being executed with machine-like efficiency. My wife's home town of Yuto in western Shizuoka Prefecture was part of a county that bordered the city of Hamamatsu on the west. They had their own sources of income, thank you very much, in the boat races on Lake Hamana, a legal gambling operation that produced enough taxes to pave even the most remote rice paddy roads. Yet the entire county and all its towns has now been absorbed into the City of Hamamatsu. The politicians were advised by their bureaucrats that amalgamation was necessary and the same advice was being given to regional cities all over the country. I would like to know what the conversations between the various town mayors and the mayor of Hamamatsu were like, but whatever the back room deals were, they did not get in the way of amalgamation because it happened like clockwork during the late 90's and early 00's. Not that I am advocating the Japanese system of government. But necessary actions are necessary actions, and good ideas are good ideas. Our system gives a high degree of autonomy to local politicians. Some choose to use this autonomy to do the right thing, others are small minded in their actions.