“What are you willing to change to reduce costs?” That was the overarching question Assemblywoman Sandy Galef posed to her Northern Westchester and Putnam constituents in a newsletter she mailed out in late spring. Hundreds of responses streamed in over the ensuing months with feedback about how to increase efficiency of local governments and school districts with the goal of saving taxpayer dollars.
“Other states do not have as many levels of government as New York does,” said Galef. “This has been our history, and our choice. Now, however, we are at a tipping point. Many people are hoping the state can come up with a solution to curb the growth of property taxes. Currently, New York State is considering a property tax cap, circuit breaker legislation and mandate relief for school districts and municipalities. But, any solution for tax relief will also involve making some compromises. My survey asked people what they would be willing to cut or see consolidated at the local level. Just like the decisions we all have to make at home – do we fix the boiler or go on vacation – tough times like these require tough choices.”
824 respondents answered the questions as follows: When asked if they would keep the government structure the same as it is now if they were given a choice, 89 percent said they would change it. 62 percent of respondents would eliminate county government while only 45 percent were willing to let go of their local town or village government. To the question “Should services between levels of government be consolidated,” an overwhelming 97 percent said “yes” they should. 81 percent of the respondents are in favor of setting up regional as opposed to local courts.
To the laundry list of services and facilities that might be considered for sharing between municipalities and school districts, the following were the most popular areas: Printing Services (77 percent chose this area for consolidation or sharing), Parks and Recreation (76 percent in favor), Tax Receiver (74 percent said yes), Highway Department (73 percent in favor of sharing or consolidation), Legal Services (70 percent would like to see sharing here), Auditing Activities (69 percent wanted to share here), Fueling Stations (66 percent would like to see these shared).
65 percent of respondents agreed that consolidating or sharing police forces, assessors, and sanitation services was something they would be willing to consider.
Services which people felt less inclined to consolidate were: Snow Plowing (least popular with only 57 percent thinking this was a good place to save), followed by Water Filtration (62 percent thought this would be an area to share), and Business Functions (63 percent would like to see sharing here.) Investment Pooling and Maintenance Services were supported by 64 percent of respondents as areas to share.
Currently, BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) are only allowed to serve school districts. Respondents were overwhelmingly in favor of BOCES’ role being expanded to serve municipalities as well, with 78 percent voting in favor of such a change.
When asked to list which school districts, if any, should consolidate with one another, constituents tended to focus on their own localities within the Putnam and Northern Westchester regions in the 90th Assembly District which Galef represents. Some felt it was not their place to make such a determination, while others suggested that smaller school districts should consolidate. One respondent suggested that schools within a 12 mile radius of one another should consolidate. Currently, New York State has more individual school districts than any other state, with 698 distinct districts.
Municipalities suggested for consolidation also tended to be focused on where the respondent lived and considered central. For example, while one person suggested Ossining, Briarcliff and Pleasantville become one, another suggested that Croton-on-Hudson and Briarcliff consolidate. Some suggested areas outside of Galef’s district, such as Mt. Vernon and New Rochelle. A number of respondents felt that both schools and villages in Putnam County were small enough that the leadership for all could be centralized
“We have got to start chipping away at our governmental infrastructure if we hope to implement any significant change,” commented Galef. “I can see from these responses that people are really ready for change and are willing to make those tough decisions to help keep more money in their pocketbooks to pay for daily expenses. We need to communicate at the local level that more sharing is what the people want.”