Background: As one of the leading academic experts on local government, it was no surprise that SUNY New Paltz Professor Gerald Benjamin was named in 2007 to the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness. The Empire Page asked Benjamin about the Commission's recommendations as well as how he views the prospects for the consolidation of local government agencies.
Q: Why should New York property owners and taxpayers be in favor of government consolidation?
A: Consolidation is only one of the options for structural reform in local government. Another is "right-sizing" service delivery in specified areas through intergovernmental collaboration. Our great number of layered and overlapping general and special purpose governments are the result of centuries of incremental change -- adding on but not subtracting. The current web - not a system, because our collection of local governments are not the result of thoughtful design - does not maximize economy, efficiency, effectiveness or accountability. (In fact, the complexity of our local governmental arrangements defeats democracy.).
We are in very difficult economic times, and difficulty is likely to persist. This is an incentive to reconsider our suboptimal local governance arrangements, not only to save money, but to get more for our money. In doing this however, we need to remember that citizens equate their local governments with the very powerful value of "community." Change must be sought with great sensitivity to this value.
Q: What are the stumbling blocks to structural reform of local government?
A: As earlier noted, people are invested in their local governments as a result of their powerful commitment to community. They conflate "community" and "municipality," or "community" and "school district," or "community" and "fire district." Additionally, general purpose local governments have land use powers in New York. People bought their homes under the prevailing governmental arrangements, and with the assumption that these would persist. They also count on the physical character of the community more or less continuing over time. Consolidating local governments, and the locus of these powers, brings uncertainty to these assumptions and therefore to assumptions made about a family's core personal and financial asset, its home.
Children are at the center of family life, and educating them well in a safe and accessible place. Combining school districts - especially since the shattering of the professional consensus on "bigger is better" for the delivery of quality education, brings uncertainty to another key assumption people make when they buy or rent a place to live - where and how well their kids will be educated.
A large portion of the costs of local government are personnel costs; reducing costs therefore often means reducing staffing. Consolidation or intergovernmental collaboration is often seen, therefore, as a threat to the careers of local elected officials and public employees.
Q: In April of this year the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness issued its "final" report. How would you grade the Commission on its findings and its recommendations?
A: I am not dispassionate, as I was a Commission member. I think that this is the best, most comprehensive, most focused, most practically useful report issued by any commission that has studied local government reform in the recent history of New York State. This is largely a result of great leadership (Stan Lundine), a terrific, hard working dedicated staff and strong support from the Governor's office.
Having said that, I must add that - as was the case for my commission colleagues - my views did not prevail on every question we took up. For example, I would have liked us to have adopted a much more aggressive agenda for constitutional change.
The challenge now is in the implementation. The politics are not easy. The governor has changed; Governor Patterson's focus has (understandably) been elsewhere. But the opportunity for reform still exists, and has even grown as the financial crisis has deepened and local budgets featuring double digit property tax increases have emerged.
The added resources and program redefinition for local government reform incentives in the Secretary of State's Local Government office are very encouraging. Meetings that the Department of State has been holding across the state to encourage local applications for funds are sold out. The new application process has a very good focus on the savings to be achieved over time (and the concomitant tax relief achieved) from proposed local collaborative actions, or consolidations. But we are still awaiting the creation in the governor's office of a staff to coordinate local government related initiatives throughout the state government and to restore the momentum behind the Commission's recommendations to enhance efficiency and competitiveness in local government in NYS.
Q: What constitutional changes would you recommend?
A: I am in broad agreement with the writing of Professor Richard Briffault of the Columbia Law School on this subject. Here are a few suggestions from within and beyond the Commission report.
1. Ease the referendum requirements for structural change in local governments.
2. Undo the presumption in favor of state power when state and local governments differ, established through court interpretation. Broaden the constitutional grant of power to localities, and take other steps to give true force to the current provision in Article IX, Section 3.c that "rights, powers, privileges and immunities granted to local governments by this article be liberally construed."
3. Adopt a constitutional boundary commission, and a process through which it might adjust local government boundaries, in accord with the work of Richard Briffault of the Columbia Law School.
4. Further liberalize provisons that allow intergovermental collaboration.
5. Place local tax bases on a broader constiutional base to reduce legislative control of local access to resoruces (e.g. sales taxes), and rationalize tax and debt limits for localities.
6. De-constitutionalize local election administration.
7. Convert certain non-policy making local elected offices to appointed offices.
8. Require that state intent to preempt localities be explicit in law.
9. Find and adopt an effective constitutional constraint on state fiscal mandates on localities.
Q: Isn't part of the problem is that while there are natural constituencies for existing local government boundaries there's no constituency that's calling for change?
A: This is not entirely true. In addition to academic reformers and some "good government" groups, the business community favors change. When I speak to Chambers of Commerce I ask: "If you were organizing your business for service delivery, would you design a set of structures (again, not a system) similar to the one you support today with your property taxes?" The answer, of course, is always "No." But citizens who consider this subject do not need provocation from me. There just no face logic for thoughtful people to the arrangements for local governance with which we now live in NYS. Of course, this does not make change easier, for the reasons outlines above, but also because we have not given potantial supporters a clear agenda for change. Nor have we elected statewide political leaders who have given the need for change in local government the priority it deserves. Elliott Spitzer was exceptional in this regard. The (at least) partial loss of focus on local government reform this year is a major unacknowledged cost off his tragic, self destructive behavior.
Q: Rationalizing local government in NYS was put on the agenda nearly 20 years ago with very little result. What did we learn from that experience and are you optimistic that this time will be different?
A: I outline the approach I think will work in my book (with Dick Nathan) on Regionalism and Realism (Washington: Brookings, 2001). Bad times - and very bad times even more so -- create a special willingness for citizens and their leaders to consider reforms: money can be saved, taxes controlled. Focus on functions, not structures. Start with functions that provoke less pubic passion; back office activities for which the government is its own customer (accounting, records management), services that are less personally and individually consumed (e.g. highways). Bigger is not always better. The idea is to "right-size." Big units do some things better: transportation. Small units do other things better: voter regitration. Focus on economy and efficiency first, and then equity later. Demonstrate to local leaders that reform will bring votes by reducing taxes, or slowing their growth.