County Consolidation: Perils and Possibilities

I’ve been mulling this topic for the better part of a week…

The term “consolidation” is increasingly tossed out as a solution to the fiscal crisis in New York State and its local governments.

It is painfully obvious, especially for anyone reviewing his or her property tax bill, (payment due tomorrow for my fellow Rotterdam residents), that something must be done. But should the consolidation of city/town/county services be a part of that solution?

My answer: a solid “maybe.” It really depends on the services being consolidated. It’s also important to ask some questions:

  • Does the consolidation take control farther away from the local populace?
  • Would consolidation likely cause future bloating of the bureaucracy?
  • What does the local electorate think?
  • Has this been done elsewhere? If so, where? How successful was it? What similarities are there to my locality?
  • What are the risks? The rewards?

More and more localities are looking into consolidating services at the county level. As reported in a recent Times Union story, The City of Schenectady participated in a study focused on the possibility of combining police functions in Schenectady County:

A state-funded police consolidation study done for the city has yielded one clear answer: that other departments in Schenectady County are not willing to consider merging with each other.

Not really a surprise in my book. Also not a surprise: according to the TU, the study cost state taxpayers $45,000. Yeah, it’s not free. But the study, conducted by the Picker Center for Executive Education at Columbia University, does suggest that there might be savings in combining some aspects of policing.

Again, according to the Times Union story:

Eimicke [Director of the Picker Center] said he could only estimate savings the city would see — up to $560,000 — if records, communications and training were combined with other departments.

Not a drop in the bucket. But not exactly earth-shattering savings either.

Much of the discussion about consolidation revolves around the potential savings and/or potential reduction in quality of government service.  Yet, I think there needs to be a focus on the voter, too. I’m a big fan of making government more local. At the local level, individual voters have more bang for their vote. Any consolidation discussion must include the voting public.

In my experience, consolidations are fraught with risk. But they can be quite beneficial. Any consolidation that I’ve experienced had its share of pain and missteps. It’s a process that must be examined with great care. It’s a process that must be open. (I’ve experienced a business-related consolidation that I would call a dismal failure due to lack of transparency.)

I believe that it is worth a look. But let’s be very careful and avoid spending tax dollars haphazardly to find out.

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2 Comments

  1. Lee Abbott

     /  January 31, 2011

    Consolidation is a big buzzword in NJ, too. Sharing services has been successful, and at some level consolidation is practical (think consolidated high schools). I saw a study that showed it requires a population of >15,000 to support a 24/7 police department. The best schools you kids attended were in Skokie–at that time, the village of Skokie(pop about 70,000) was divided into 4 separate elementary school districts–and there was no clamor for consolidation. The high school district, on the other hand, was consolidated, hugh (4-5 different towns) and the source of much discontent for everyone.

    Didn’t some ad compaign ask this: your bank has gotten bigger; has the service improved?

    Reply
    • Interesting point on the schools. On the other hand, a town like good ol’ Alloway was too small to justify having a high school of their own. I wonder if their elementary school should have been consolidated with other towns, too.

      Reply

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