Gov. Andrew Cuomo had tough words Friday for local officials facing fiscal crises and seeking more help from Albany, telling them they should consolidate services or whole governments and school districts rather than looking for relief from Albany.
“If it was really, really tough, you’d see that happen,” Cuomo said in his strongest comments yet on the local fiscal crises. “If you are a school district, or a city, or a town or a county, and you are looking for a fundamental financial reform, consolidation is one of the obvious ones.”
Cuomo said he believes local politics is standing in the way of mergers and consolidations that would save taxpayers money and improve efficiency of services. He said deciding to consolidate should be easy, yet “politically, it’s difficult … I get the politics.”
Despite years of hard times, Cuomo said you can count “on one hand” the number of consolidations among 50,000 local governments, school districts, fire and library taxing districts and more.
School districts and local governments say they are already consolidating and merging, but that’s not enough. They are asking for more laws than Cuomo has offered in his state budget proposal to cut labor costs, pension costs and more funding.
Advocates like Myron Orfield and David Rusk have been pushing for metropolitanization for decades – and if Cuomo is right, it might happen now because local governments will have little choice when faced with tough economic issues. However, there are three major issues standing in the way of government consolidation even when times are tough:
1. Local control and interests. This is part of the foundation of the American governmental system: residents should have some say in local government. Thus, local governments and residents will fight hard before they have to hand off decision-making to outsiders.
2. We could end up with situations where communities and governments that are harder off are pushed to consolidate while wealthier areas can hold out longer. This is then a different kind of inequality: wealthier residents would have more local control while poorer residents would have less control.
3. Consolidation might save money but what happens to the quality of the local services? Merging might lead to a reduction of services and some residents will not be happy about this. This is more of a quality of life issue that could influence crime rates, school performance, garbage pickup, and more.