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Letter: Can’t Convince Them, Confuse Them

Harry S. Truman once said, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”

It sounds like the mantra adopted by some of our state legislators who quickly jumped on the consolidation bandwagon by introducing insignificant legislation merely to placate special interest groups and garner media attention.

The latest political opportunist is New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, whose political aspirations for higher office have him introducing a bill-a-day to keep his name in the headlines. His latest is a local government consolidation proposal that would reduce from 33 percent to 10 percent the number of registered voters signatures necessary to force a village dissolution study and referendum. Unfortunately, instead of justifying his intentions with facts, he relies on baseless assumptions that are false and misleading. Instead of producing savings, his legislation could result in substantial and unnecessary additional costs for taxpayers. That is particularly evident in the Village of East Williston, where there are 2,500 residents. Under Cuomo’s plan, just 200 registered voters can compel the village to spend thousands of dollars on a dissolution study and a public vote. If the vote is unsuccessful the first time, it can be revisited in three years. And if it is successful, the village board would have to create a dissolution plan that would not be approved by village residents. Does this make sense? Of course not. Then what would motivate someone to promulgate such a ridiculous proposition?

The premise for Cuomo’s bill is the report released last spring by the Commission of Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness, a committee appointed by former governor Eliot Spitzer to examine what he believed was the plethora of taxing districts in New York State. Following release of the committee’s report a few state legislators displayed typical knee-jerk reactions by immediately introducing legislation calling for the downsizing of government and the elimination or consolidation of villages – the state’s most effective and efficient form of local government.

You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to know that New York State has too many levels of government. But the proliferation of the thousands of special taxing districts is the creation of the towns and cities and has nothing to do with villages. Obviously, the attorney general is entering the game late and without any facts to support his position. If he had done his homework, he would have learned that many experts dispute the notion that eliminating or consolidating villages would produce substantial cost savings.

What the Experts Say about Villages

Donald Boyd, a senior fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, prepared a report at the request of the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness. Unfortunately the commission, for reasons unknown, chose to ignore some of Mr. Boyd’s findings when it published its recommendations.

In referring to village dissolutions, Mr. Boyd states in his report, “Tax increases in the town-outside-village area have been the norm in past village dissolutions” and that a village dissolution where urbanized village services have been provided “may result in the creation of multiple special assessment districts.” In other words, eliminating a single village opens the door for creating multiple new special taxing districts.

Mr. Boyd continued his opinion of village dissolution by quoting a researcher (Jered Carr 2004) and writing, “Simply put, the ability of consolidated government to produce benefits promised by its proponents has not been established.” He also writes, “Literature reviews have suggested that costs of merged governments are not necessarily lower than the costs of individual governments and can be higher” and “Many studies found higher costs after consolidation due to “leveling up” of salaries (i.e. paying all workers at the highest pay scale of the governments involved in a consolidation).”

Lee Koppelman, for more than three decades a bi-county planner and most recently a professor of planning at Stony Brook University, is one of Long Island’s most respected planning experts. When asked about the multi-levels of government on Long Island, he said, “If a village government is operated efficiently, there is no form of government closer to the people. No municipal form of government is more efficient when operated well.”

So if the experts all agree that villages are the most efficient form of local government, what is the rationale for introducing legislation to consolidate or eliminate village government? Is it to create a process for dissolving villages? That already exists. Is it to save money by consolidating services? That, too, already exists. Villages already maximize efficiencies by sharing equipment, engaging in consortium bidding for products and services, providing intermunicipal assistance. In fact, former Lt. Governor Stan Lundine, the commission’s chairman, was quick to diffuse the impression that the commission was recommending the consolidation or elimination of villages. In an interview with Newsday reporter Elizabeth Moore he stated, “Our report actually does not advocate mandatory consolidation of any cities, towns, villages or fire districts.”

Let’s be honest. There is no valid reason. The attorney general cannot provide any facts to support his position. With so many difficult challenges facing the attorney general and our state elected officials, it makes you wonder who would waste time with an issue that has been examined at nausea. People move to incorporated villages because they desire a particular lifestyle. They want a government that is responsive and accountable. When it comes to delivering services to residents in a manner that is efficient and cost-effective, no level of government can match a village.

With all that is happening in our communities – loss of jobs and homes, and taxes going through the roof - it is time to send a strong message to Attorney General Cuomo and our state legislators. Stop wasting time and taxpayer monies drafting worthless legislation and start concentrating on the real issues – like keeping our state viable.

Nancy Zolezzi, mayor,

Village of East Williston;

 also president of Village Officials