Presented to the New York State Assembly Committee on Local Government
May 16, 2008
Bruce L. Fisher, Esq.
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.
Let’s focus on the issue of fiscal efficiency. Budget staff for
In accepting the Lundine commission report, Governor Patterson announced that the State of
As a result,
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
I am here to suggest that
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
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.
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
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
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
But there’s a closer, more approachable example just an hour up the road from us here in
They had something like the Lundine Commission in
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