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Dissolve towns?

March 29, 2010
By PETER CROWLEY, Enterprise Managing Editor

Upstate, we talk of dissolving villages, but downstate, there is talk of dissolving counties.

Yes, you heard that right. Westchester and Putnam counties are both facing major deficits, and there has been talk of combining them. Against that background, Putnam County Executive Robert Bondi earlier this month threw out the idea of having New York get rid of the county level of government altogether, according to the Journal News newspaper.

The argument goes like this: Connecticut and Rhode Island don't have counties, and Massachusetts did away with that level of government in the mid-1990s. And those states have notably lower property taxes than New York.

This is an interesting idea, especially as it becomes more clear that it's going to be up to local, not state, government to provide property tax relief in New York. I fully agree that our state has too many municipalities, but I would keep counties.

Towns, however, New York's county subdivision - couldn't they be dissolved with much less loss? Back to that in a minute.

Counties do many essential jobs that no one else does, but which someone would presumably have to do if they went away. Their jails hold those accused of being dangers to society, their courts handle lawsuits and felony criminal cases, and their prosecuting and public-defense lawyers represent the people and the indigent defendants. County landfills and transfer stations take our garbage. County clerks document property transfers. County public health departments give flu shots and emergency aid. County motor-vehicles departments make sure drivers are licensed and that vehicles are registered and inspected, which keeps our roads safer. And it is counties that administer social services like Medicaid, welfare and disability payments. Plus, counties maintain many roads and bridges, senior-citizens centers and, in both Franklin and Essex, at least, run nursing homes. And these are just in our very rural area. Bigger, more populated counties do more than that.

Without counties, we would be left with towns, and there's no way they could do even a smidgen of what counties do. And that leads us to this question: What would we lose if we eliminated the town level of government?

I've been thinking about this for more than a week and haven't come up with anything that killed the idea, but I'm sure there's a lot I haven't considered. I'd welcome your thoughtful comments and responses.

I honestly don't think New York is ever going to get rid of towns, but it's worth thinking about because it highlights services we can do without or transfer or consolidate. We are living beyond our means, government-wise and otherwise, and need to reduce and simplify. Even if towns stick around, they can do a heck of a lot less.

So, again, let's imagine New York zapped towns.

Most town services could be transferred to the county level: courts, road maintenance, property assessment, airports, and water and fire districts. Rural planning presents some interesting wrinkles, but it's not out of the question.

I can see people missing the homey feeling of local representation and local laws, but wouldn't you rather have tax money in your pocket?

I can also imagine a fair bit of tax savings. Each town highway department, for instance, has its own superintendent, garage, heavy machinery and unionized highway employees, none of which is cheap. If the county took over maintenance of the town roads, it would need to bring on many of those same trucks, garages, supervisors and workers, but nowhere near all of them. Think: Franklin County has 19 towns, and Essex County has 18 - each with a highway department, on top of each county's own. Consolidate those 39 highway departments into two, and how big would each have to be? Much less than 18 times its current size, I'd bet.

Lifelong residents of this area may not realize that people in other states get along fine without the density of government bodies that exists in New York - specifically the town (sometimes called township) level. Many states just have counties and, below that, incorporated cities, villages or the like. Outside of city limits, your local government is the county.

Some states handle this by having smaller and more numerous counties, as in Georgia, which is about the same geographic size as New York but has 159 counties to our 62, or Texas, which has 254 counties. But California, triple New York's size, has only 58 counties - and no towns.

Listen, I like the idea of all these small towns, each with its own municipal infrastructure. It's a pleasant throwback to the 19th century, when getting from here to Malone or Elizabethtown would have taken all day, if you had a carriage, which many people couldn't afford.

But really, I'm not sure this dense patchwork of municipalities is necessary anymore. And at a time of financial hardship, it's a luxury we might want to reconsider.

But what can we do? We probably won't lose the town layer, but letting taxpayers vote on their municipal budgets, the way they do their school budgets, would be a good start. Even without that, voters could elect council members who would reduce rather than add town services.

That's one nice thing about our multitude of local governments that people don't take enough advantage of - local control.

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Contact Peter Crowley at (518) 891-2600 ext. 22 or pcrowley@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.

 
 

 

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