By Joan T. Parks and Marian Deutschman
We were very interested in The Buffalo News articles of March 16 and 21 describing Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s efforts to reduce local property taxes by enticing municipalities to consolidate services and merge governmental entities, and the responses of some Erie County municipalities. The League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara concluded a three-year study of municipality consolidation and merger in 2009. We considered shared services, cooperative agreements, mergers of government functions, consolidations of local government structures, dissolutions of villages and towns and annexations.
We reviewed historic data on formation and development of Erie and Niagara counties and their towns, cities and villages. We reviewed studies that concluded that bigger/central government is not necessarily better government, nor is small-scale government. Factors such as leadership, economic health and political relationships contribute to healthy communities. Some sources claim government consolidations and mergers don’t create the fundamentals that draw businesses. Instead they are attracted by universities, a vibrant arts/cultural community, natural resources, ports and skilled workers.
From our study and interviews, we identified factors that facilitate intergovernmental relationships. Among them is 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 or there may be advantages to extending services beyond the boundaries of one municipality into a neighboring one. There are also barriers that hinder intergovernmental relationships, including lack of citizen interest, independence of small jurisdictions, union contracts, employee fear of job loss, possible conflicting personalities and ambitions of elected officials, and residents who fear loss of municipal identity.
Clearly much has been accomplished in Erie County, but there is more to do. We urge our towns and villages to continue their efforts in a thoughtful manner and Cuomo to support their efforts.
With our study, we developed criteria to consider when developing cooperative efforts. We encourage such efforts if they result in cost savings and a positive effect on taxes, improved quality and efficiency of services, a cooperative and collaborative planning process, transparency, well-defined channels for citizen input and review, social and economic justice, and provision of both short-term and long-term evaluation.
We hope these criteria can be applied in the pursuit of good government.
Joan T. Parks is president of the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara. Marian Deutschman is the local government chairwoman.