Local Restructuring
Local Restructuring

The New York State Constitution establishes a framework for the creation and administration of local governments. It empowers Counties (other than those wholly included within cities; i.e. New York City) to adopt amend and repeal forms of county government. It also empowers local governments to transfer functions between the counties, cities, towns and villages.

Through the historical evolution of our local government structures in New York State, we currently have a system of local governments in four general purpose government categories: counties, cities, towns, and villages.  While each of these categories draws to mind imagery associated with size and character, this imagery is not always in keeping with reality.  In reality we have a local government system whereby cities towns and villages exist within counties, but multiple counties exist within one city (we call them boroughs), towns within counties, and villages that are in more than one town.  Furthermore, the assumptions of scale and character associated with these governments frequently are at odds with the current state of the localities.  For instance: the smallest city, Sherril, has a population of 3,147, while the largest, New York City, has a population of 8,175,133.  The largest town, Hempstead, has a population of 759,757, while the smallest town, Red House has a population of 38.  The issue is that the current patchwork of local government structures and overlapping jurisdictions are 19th century creations that do not always fit into a 21st century service delivery paradigm.

New York's 62 counties were originally created by the state for its own administrative convenience. They were just agents of state rather than municipal corporations. As the population grew, uniform state law was increasingly inadequate to meet the needs of burgeoning suburban areas. The legislature in 1935 made significant changes to extend counties' powers as municipal corporations. Since then, counties have gone more rapidly toward greater power and autonomy. As a result, The Municipal Home Rule Law was adopted in 1963. By the law, most counties generally came to adopt charters and to have an elected executive or appointed manager, separately from the state.

Towns, like counties, were also involuntary in their birth. All territories in a county are divided into towns. Towns, therefore, exercised little self-rule and were controlled by counties. As population grew, particularly in suburban towns, pressure continued for extending the powers of town government. The town meeting diminished and town boards and supervisors grew in importance. The more populated towns were often changed into villages. Since the 1920s, the powers of first-class towns were as extensive those of villages. Town governments regulated land use, built highways, provided police, and regulated all sorts of public behaviors by town laws. In 1976, general provision was made for towns to adopt a manager system of government. There are 932 towns in New York.

Cities, differently from counties and towns, were created as public corporations to meet special local needs. The power of each city derives from a unique statute. Cities are not organs of the state. Generalization about cities, however, becomes more difficult than other entities, because of their unique charter and special needs. Moreover, their substantial powers and structures even among the current 41 cities vary considerably, even though most of them have mayor-council systems.

Village governments have far more powers than towns, as extensive as those of early cities. The growth of the autonomy and power seems to be like those of cities. There are currently 556 villages in New York State. Most villages were chartered before the early twentieth century.

The four types of local governments have been converging incrementally in their structure and powers since the Civil War, increasing their similarities while diminishing their differences.

Our system of local governments was conceived centuries ago, and the current state of local government in New York is the result of a historical progression. Starting from scratch, no expert or group of experts would design for a state the “system” of local government operating in New York State today.  It is difficult to imagine a rationale for such a system.  There are currently too many local government structures, often with overlapping jurisdictions, and functions.  Recently, the fiscally austere environment has served as an impetus to local governments considering cost savings measures that were unthinkable in the past.  The recent addition of the 2% tax cap has only added to that pressure.  More and more, local governments are faced with the choice of delivering services more efficiently, or making hard decisions as to how and where to scale back the services it delivers.  There appears a sort of cognitive dissonance amongst the people of New York where we believe our taxes are far too high, but also do not want to scale back the services which we have grown to expect.  All of this has led to the examination of our local government structures with an eye towards changing them to achieve greater efficiencies.

The 2009 Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act (A08501) provides a clear path towards consolidation and dissolution of local government entities, and has a built in provision for the citizens of the municipalities to vote directly on consolidation or dissolution by referendum.  This law facilitates consolidation efforts by local governments, but is narrow in the variety of results which it endorses.  For instance, a result that is supported under the law is the dissolution of a village government, and the town and village boards can receive financial assistance from the State to achieve this, but coterminality is not supported by the law.  The difference is that dissolution, consolidation and coterminality all have different legal processes to enact, and in dissolution and consolidation one government entity ceases to exist, and in coterminality both governments legally remain and the local government chooses to operate as either a village or a town, leaving the flexibility to change the government structure in the future.

The 2009 Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act (A08501) provides a clear path towards consolidation and dissolution of local government entities, and has a built in provision for the citizens of the municipalities to vote directly on consolidation or dissolution by referendum.  This law facilitates consolidation efforts by local governments, but is narrow in the variety of results which it endorses.  For instance, a result that is supported under the law is the dissolution of a village government, and the town and village boards can receive financial assistance from the State to achieve this, but coterminality is not supported by the law.  The difference is that dissolution, consolidation and coterminality all have different legal processes to enact, and in dissolution and consolidation one government entity ceases to exist, and in coterminality both governments legally remain and the local government chooses to operate as either a village or a town, leaving the flexibility to change the government structure in the future.
A 2006 report released by the New York State Comptroller’s Division of Local Government Services and Economic Development entitled Outdated Municipal Structures: Cities Towns and Villages – 18th Century Designations for 21st Century Communities takes a critical view of  New York State’s municipal structures, and investigates the potential for sweeping changes to the way we classify and view municipalities.  It uses cluster analysis to sort municipalities into new groupings that do a better job of describing and classifying modern communities than the 18th century designations, and would make State laws that treat different types of municipalities differently based on these classifications more effective by better tailoring aid and regulation based on the current conditions of the municipality.  The report breaks municipalities down into 4 categories: Major Urban Centers, Smaller Urban Centers, Suburbs, and Rural based on structural, demographic, and financial elements.

Regardless of if the State were to create a simpler system of restructuring local governments utilizing the existing municipal structure or if the State were take a leap forward and reclassify all of the municipalities in the State and rewrite the laws regarding the relationship between the State and Counties, and the Municipalities to reflect those changes, changes to the Constitution would ensure that a rational and lasting process is established.

 


ARTICLE IX

Local Governments

Section 1. (d) No local government or any part of the territory thereof shall be annexed to another until the people, if any, of the territory proposed to be annexed shall have consented thereto by majority vote on a referendum and until the governing board of each local government, the area of which is affected, shall have consented thereto upon the basis of a determination that the annexation is in the over-all public interest. The consent of the governing board of a county shall be required only where a boundary of the county is affected. 

(h) (1) Counties, other than those wholly included within a city, shall be empowered by general law, or by special law enacted upon county request pursuant to section two of this article, to adopt, amend or repeal alternative forms of county government provided by the legislature or to prepare, adopt, amend or repeal alternative forms of their own.

§2. (a) The legislature shall provide for the creation and organization of local governments in such manner as shall secure to them the rights, powers, privileges and immunities granted to them by this constitution.

 

NEWS BEHIND THE CONSTITUTION
Columbia News Service
Brian Dowling
Monday, March 12, 2012
Residents in Lakewood, Tenn., still call Aaron Prince regularly with questions about trash pickup or how to get a police unit to check around their house. But Prince hasn’t been the city’s mayor since May 2011, when the city disincorporated,...
This article investigates issues of identity associated with the dissolution of local governments.
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New Paltz Times
Erin Quinn
Thursday, January 26, 2012
This clip highlights the complexity of choices and structures that local municipalities are faced with when considering restructuring.  In this case, the option that the municipalities had decided was the best for them did not conform with the language of the State Law designed to facilitate restructuring.
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The Watertown Daily Times
Matthew Bultman
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Dissolution was again the topic of discussion Tuesday night in the village, but this time it featured speakers with fresh perspective on the issue.Three leaders from the village of Seneca Falls — the mayor, village administrator and attorney...
This clip highlights some of the trepidation and uncertianty involved in the current process of local government restructuring.
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