Friday, May 16, 2008

The "state interest" in Upstate


Presented to the New York State Assembly Committee on Local Government

Hon. William B. "Sam" Hoyt III, Chairman

Buffalo and Erie County Public Library

May 16, 2008

Bruce L. Fisher, Esq.[1]

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for this opportunity to ask that we seize the day for consolidation.

You, Mr. Chairman, have been a staunch and creative stalwart in advancing the cause of smart growth in this State, and I want to commend you for your leadership as well in the movement to re-shape our governance.

I also want to commend Commission Chairman Stan Lundine for his leadership and his persistence in these matters. I first met the former mayor, congressman and lieutenant governor more than a decade ago when he was the quiet force behind the first Chautauqua Conference on regionalism. Stan Lundine was calm and unshakeable as he stood with those of us who advocate a historic reform in the way local government is organized in this state.

And I also want to commend our new Governor for embracing the Commission’s study. I noted with particular interest that Governor Patterson seized the day to make the connection between the unsustainable condition of local government with the terrible fiscal crisis that looms over the entire state.

He was right to make the connection. There's been an economic crisis in Upstate New York for a generation. Make that two generations. But the crisis of depopulation, capital flight, collapsing small cities and relentless suburban sprawl in the 53 counties outside the New York Metro area has been masked by massive State spending of tax revenues generated within the 9-county Metro area.

New York State is subsidizing dysfunction. It’s not only a matter of efficiency, but as my good friend David Rusk says, it’s a matter of effectiveness. Fractured local governance in Upstate New York is fiscally inefficient, but it’s also economically ineffective.

Let’s focus on the issue of fiscal efficiency. Budget staff for New York City did a report in 2004, co-authored by the independent Rochester think-tank CGR. That study estimates that an economically healthy Downstate subsidizes economically-challenged Upstate by over $11 billion a year.[2]

In accepting the Lundine commission report, Governor Patterson announced that the State of New York will be at least $5 to $7 billion short in the current fiscal year, and could be more than $25 billion in the red over the next four years.

Upstate New York is on the dole, and will remain on the dole, because despite some positive economic fundamentals – especially a tremendous wealth of colleges and universities, including three of the four SUNY research centers – Upstate New York has never rationalized, regionalized or consolidated its old government structures.

As a result, New York City taxpayers foot the bill for over 4,500 units of government for a population that is smaller than New York City's, where there is only one unit of government – or two, if you count the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Many scholars and many citizens think there's a connection between the economic crisis of Upstate and the antique jalopy of its governance structure. Many voices have urged Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Schenectady, Binghamton and other urban centers to consolidate with their counties, and to bring the town governments in with them into regional governance structures – such as New York has had since 1896.

Political resistance has been easy because Albany foots the bill for local government. "Home Rule" has become the excuse for inefficiency, fracturing, and a destructive spiral of sprawl without growth.

And Albany has been footing the bill with the New York metro's money.

I am here to suggest that Albany should no longer foot the bill. I am also here to embrace the Lundine Commission’s report, and to commend to Governor Patterson’ specific attention the $1.5 to $2 billion in general aid that goes from his budget to the budgets of local governments. It is time for State government to use the Lundine Commission report as the tool to fix what’s broken.

During my 8 years as deputy county executive, I worked hard at the County level to do what can really only be achieved by State government.

For example, in Erie County, we worked collaboratively with many police agencies and emergency-services first-responders to construct a new regional public safety system. We made great progress. We built the award-winning Public Safety Campus. We built a brand-new state-of-the-art DNA lab, which has been so instrumental in supporting our law-enforcement agencies as they’ve solved the case of the Bike Path Rapist and other cold cases.

We also built a state-of-the-art emergency dispatch center, where today, all – let me say that again, ALL – of the cellular and wireless calls to 911 are received. The regional government, known as the County government, functioned in this case the way it should – as the regional resource, with the best technology, serving the regional network.

But the fact is, we still don’t have unified regional management of basic services like emergency 911 dispatch on a county-wide basis. Erie County still has 26 Public Safety Answering Points or PSAPs for less than one million people – even while New York City has one PSAP for almost 8 million people. Los Angeles has one PSAP for almost 9 million people. Erie County, with only 925,000 people, has 26.


Because Albany allows it to remain that way. Albany tolerates this duplication and fracturing in the name of Home Rule. But Albany also helps foot the bill for micro-local management.

The Lundine Commission reports that everything from Industrial Development Agencies to sewer districts to town highway departments is managed micro-locally.

But tucked away in the appendix to the Commission report Governor Patterson just received is a little gem of legal analysis that could help him deal with his $5 billion fiscal crisis and at the same time start to help fix Upstate as well.

In the section on Home Rule, the lawyers point out that "[t]here is no limit on the State's power to act by general laws." The State can act on matters of "state concern."

I cannot think of a more urgent state concern than the poverty and state expense of maintaining thousands of unnecessary units of government in sprawled-out upstate urban regions. The terrible price in lost human potential and lost human capital that we in Upstate New York are continuing to pay is a legitimate “state concern.”

The inefficient, sprawl-inducing, tax-dollar-eating proliferation of little units of government in Upstate New York has produced a matter of legitimate "state concern."

A dying Upstate should be a New York City taxpayer concern, too.

The Lundine Commission report says that its reforms could save about a billion dollars a year. If the State deficit this year is $5 billion, getting hold of $1 billion of costs isn't a cure, but it's a lot more than a bandage.

But state leadership on regionalizing Upstate's governance holds greater promise. Regionalized governance – where the city, the suburbs and the county are all merged – actually does work.

Mr. Chairman, regionalized governance – including strong regional planning using the county rather than the town as the regional unit – is a practice that has rescued old industrial cities like Hamilton, Ontario. The approach has also worked for Indianapolis, Nashville, Jacksonville and, of course, New York City itself. The unity achieved by governance change has made for economic resilience – and for lower cost-per-unit services, too.

Perhaps it would be easier for all of us to understand if we saw it first-hand. Now I would love for all of us to take a field trip to New York City where five counties were merged into one great city more than a hundred years ago. That’s the kind of regionalism I like and that the world has endorsed.

But there’s a closer, more approachable example just an hour up the road from us here in Buffalo. Mr. Chairman, I hope that we can take a ride together to visit our friends in Hamilton, Ontario, to see first-hand how a regionalized city-county-town merger actually works. The legislation I drafted some years ago – legislation that proposed a two-stage merger to get us from three-tier government to one-tier government – was based entirely on the experience of Hamilton, Ontario.

They had something like the Lundine Commission in Ontario a decade ago. They called it the Who Does What Commission. The Province of Ontario said, We have a fiscal crisis. We have a sprawl crisis. The province then said, Hamilton, you have 60 days to figure out who does what – which level of government does which kind of service. And then the province said, propose a structure that does it better, smarter and cheaper. So Hamilton first merged the city and the county, in phase one. And in phase two, they merged the towns with the city and the county, and now they have the Regional City of Hamilton.

Mr. Chairman, I see the Lundine Commission report as a historic opportunity to get us started. It’s like a Who Does What Commission.

So I conclude by saying that our real opportunity is at hand. We have a draft of a roadmap to change with the Lundine Commission report. We have an understanding that changing local governance and changing local land-use planning go hand in hand.

We have a Governor in David Patterson who understands and was correct to put the reform conversation in the same sentence as the fiscal crisis conversation.

So let's not waste a good crisis. Let’s take the next step, the logical step, the fiscally prudent step, and make the crisis of upstate New York’s urban regions into a matter of state interest as defined by law, and use the Lundine Commission report to get us to the future.

[1] Former deputy Erie County executive 2000-2007

Former deputy Buffalo comptroller 1996-1999

[2] CGR, Balance of Revenue & Expenditure Among NYS Regions.

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