Government Change: More than Dollars and Cents
League of Women Voters Buffalo/Niagara
Local Government Committee
September 23, 2009
Our committee started with this charge in June, 2005:
"Study of possible mergers/consolidations of local governments in the Erie Niagara region"
The impetus for the study was the proposed merger of the City of Buffalo and Erie County.
After the collapse of the Buffalo/Erie County merger effort, we broadened our study to consider the following:
- Shared services
- Cooperative agreements
- Mergers of local government functions
- Consolidations of local government structures
- Dissolutions of villages and towns
We conducted a three-year study. We found few successful city-county mergers in recent years.
- No city-county mergers in NYS since the five-county merger to form New York City in 1898.
- Usually mergers occurred in other states where the counties had much unincorporated territory.
- There were no definitive studies of city-county mergers to determine whether there were significant cost savings or increased efficiency.
Study resources of city-county mergers suggested:
- Reformers make so many accommodations to special interests to get a merger passed that possible benefits and savings are compromised.
- Political problems of accomplishing such a merger are overwhelming.
- Various types of cooperative arrangements (e.g. shared services) rather than changes in government structures are more likely to be implemented.
We learned the following about dissolutions of villages or towns:
- Dissolution of one small village (pop. 100) in NYS showed savings of about 5% after two years.
- Feasibility study for another village dissolution predicted village taxes would go down and town taxes would go up.
- State aid might total more for the separate town and village than for the combined entity.
- Our conclusion: Village dissolutions have complex consequences that need further study.
A 2004 study by Margaret Weir of UC Berkeley, "A Century of Debate about Regionalism and Metropolitan Government," concluded:
- Research on institutional forms has underscored the limits of consolidation, special districts, and interlocal agreements as solutions to the issues of efficiency and equity in metropolitan areas.
- Governmental form is rarely a decisive factor in shaping regional outcomes.
The Governance Project of SUNY at Buffalo (1996) considered whether a more regional approach to governance would restore economic health to the region. Their conclusion:
- Bigger (central) government is not necessarily better government, nor is small-scale (decentralized) government better.
- Other factors such as leadership, overall economic health, and political relationships contribute to healthy communities.
Other sources claim government consolidations and mergers don't readily create the fundamentals that draw businesses. Instead they are attracted by:
- Vibrant arts/cultural community
- Natural resources
- Skilled workers
We interviewed elected officials in twelve Erie and Niagara County municipalities as well as three public employee union representatives.We learned:
- There are already many shared services, collaborations, and cooperative agreements among local governments.
- Some are skeptical of the need for changes in local government structures, but some are open to discussion.
From our study and interviews, we found that these factors facilitate intergovernmental relationships:
- The belief that combining efforts to provide a service will result in cost savings and/or better and more efficient provision of that service.
- There may be an opportunity to reduce or stabilize local taxes.
- There may be advantages to extending services beyond the boundaries of one municipality into a neighboring one.
We found these barriers hinder intergovernmental relationships:
- Lack of citizen interest
- Independence of small jurisdictions
- Union contracts
- Employee fear of job loss
- Possible conflicting personalities and ambitions of elected officials
- Residents fear the loss of their village or town identity.
As a result of our study, we developed a set of criteria for the LWVB/N to support the initiation of an intergovernmental relationship:
- Cost savings and positive effect on taxes
- Improved quality and efficiency of services
- Cooperative and collaborative planning process
- Transparency of the process
- Well defined channels for citizen input and review
- Social and economic justice
- Provision of both short- and long-term evaluation