hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires





Shrink government, but keep local control?


When it comes to streamlining government, it
seems everyone loves the concept – at least until
they hear what’s involved.
As our cover story this month details, a new law
championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo has lately
given a boost to the cause of government consolidation
in New York. The law makes it easier for
citizens to launch petition drives to do away with
village governments, and it offers incentive payments
to the surrounding towns that would take
over services previously handled by the villages.
As a result, voters in the Washington County
villages of Greenwich and Salem will be deciding
this summer whether to dissolve their village governments.
And other villages around the region
likely will be debating the same issues soon.
Given that most of our region’s local governments
were organized in the 19th century – before
the advent of the Internet, telephones or even cars
– it seems fair to ask whether we still need as many
separate jurisdictions as we once did.
And looking at the example of Greenwich, discussed
in our story, it’s hard to imagine why it still
makes sense for the village and the town, which
have offices next door to one another, to each
have their own public works departments, clerks,
tax collectors and justice courts. Combining those
functions for the two municipalities seems bound
to result in greater efficiency and cost savings for
local taxpayers.
That said, doing away with village governments
altogether is also likely to result in loss of services
in some cases. In Greenwich, these include local
police patrols, which the village now obtains
through a shared services agreement with the village
of Cambridge, 8 miles away.
Then there’s the issue of zoning and planning.
Villages by their nature are compact, pedestrianoriented
communities, while the rural towns that
surround them generally are scaled to cars. If a village
votes to dissolve, the surrounding town could
simply retain the same land-use rules in the portion
of town that was once a village. But it doesn’t
have to, and village voters who want to preserve
the historic character of their communities might
feel they’re making a leap of faith by voting to do
away with their village.
That in turn raises the matter of scale. Just stop
to consider: New York, with its famously dysfunctional
Legislature, has suddenly embraced the
idea of streamlining government by making it
easier for citizens to do away with villages, which
in many cases are the most local, open and accessible
layer of government in the state.
One drawback to consolidation schemes is that
they often result in government entities that are
larger and more remote from the average voter.
And voters, though they may like the idea of increased
efficiency and reduced cost, also fear any
loss of local control.
That’s partly why three village dissolution proposals
failed in recent years in Saratoga County,
and it’s certainly why efforts to consolidate school
districts in New York and Vermont haven’t gotten
very far.
When it comes to streamlining government, it
might make more sense to follow the example of
Massachusetts, which since the 1990s has eliminated
eight of its 14 county governments.
Berkshire County abolished its county government
in 2000. A district attorney and sheriff are
still elected in districts that conform to the old
county lines, but their budgets are set and funded
by the state.