On Government Consolidation

Comments to the Syracuse 2020 forum.

August 31, 2007

I'm all for exploring the restructuring of local government for greater efficiency as well as greater democratic outcomes. We could look at consolidation but also the form of city and county incorporation, and bylaws. A more efficient government on paper doesn't necessarily lead to more efficient or more democratic outcomes. As an analogy, a company that lowers its costs doesn't necessarily lead to lower prices to consumers, or higher wages to workers; and no one expects (or has even suggested) that the massive subsidies to the Carousel Mall expansion will result in lower prices to customers, or higher wages to workers there.

Government consolidation also poses a risk; it could lead to greater consolidation of power and worsen outcomes for the majority. It is also true that with all the current energy for exploring change, there is the opportunity to achieve a truly superior government organization (greater mechanical efficiency and more democratic outcomes). It's all in the details. And the details must be spelled out for all to review and discuss thoroughly if we are to succeed.

No one should expect government consolidation per se to improve the social and economic vitality of the region. More on that later. I think our current weakness (by no means limited to our region) is poor policy, due partly to old habits and bad advice, but also to political corruption. Please, let's not pretend. Let's not dwell on it either, but understand it and be cognizant of it as we set about redesigning government.

Feedback to the ideas so far presented on Syracuse 2020 website

1) Existing local government design is from the 1800s, not suited for the modern globalized world.

Response: There are (amazingly) 70,000 –80,000 (haven't checked recently) municipalities in the US. This complexity is fairly uniform throughout the states. NYS is no more complex. So the suggestion that "It's easier and cheaper to go to some other region, some other state" because our government is too fragmented does not appear to be valid. Our problems are elsewhere.

2) City, county, and state economic growth is less on average than that of many other states or regions (implies poor government organization).

Response: Agreed. But, so far, no significant argument has been made that government fragmentation is the cause. Articles have been published, and speeches given, simply presuming that consolidation is the cure, but with only anecdotes (weak ones) offered in support of this presumption.

Moreover, the economic decline we have experienced is not a local nor state phenomenon; it is a Northeastern U.S. phenomenon. It's roots are in U.S. international trade policy, unrelated to and unaffected by local government formation. Call your Congresspersons.

3) Government consolidation is the key that will open the path to lower taxes, better business environment, more jobs, increasing population, and presumably a rising standard of living for residents.

Response: I don't doubt that government can be made more efficient. But let's start with eyes wide open, review the issues, see what's needed to effect positive change, then see what part consolidation may have in this larger picture.

4) Reasons for hope: $5.4B in planned investments; Creative Core; possible energy tech region.

Response: Exactly. We can be creative and coordinate local development initiatives without government consolidation. In fact, if we can't better agree to create and coordinate local development, we'll never reach the harder step of government consolidation.

5) Modernizing government. 3 general options: 1, 2, 3 tier.

Response: I think it will take a deep rationale (a document) on each option to properly inform the public and allow them to meaningfully consider, ask questions, and contribute to the initiative.

Some suggestions on development policy

I suggest we not focus on 25 year economic development plans; they are to conceptual and distant. Better to create detailed 5 year urban design/development plans. The plans should be concerned with infrastructure maintenance and expansion, delineating preferred development for individual neighborhoods, and promoting/facilitating whatever missing development is needed to maintain a sustainable, economically balanced, prosperous, and culturally vibrant region. The city and county have much to gain by collaborating.

Do not underestimate the power of cultural development as a path to economic development. An attractive city with high cultural vitality is what draws diverse people, jobs, money, a healthy tax base, and lower tax rates to the region.

Another thing. We can create so many jobs from within. We regularly give huge amounts of state and federal economic development money to the largest and most established companies, rather than help local companies get started or expand (as many of these monies were intended to do). In subsidizing the big companies (grants, tax exemptions), we often destroy local companies (which no-longer face a level playing field). A big company's claim of new jobs (especially retail) in large part comes at the loss of current jobs. We often throw the baby out with the bath water, losing our property tax base in the process. Let's focus on multiple smaller scale development. It takes less planning, less risk (therefore fewer subsidies), and creates a more stable/sustainable economy.

We destroyed downtown Syracuse and adjacent neighborhoods in the 60s, 70s, and 80s by turning a mixed use and dynamic urban fabric into a glorified office park. We made it easy for residents to move to the suburbs by plastering two highways across the city. These were terrible policies brought on by terrible advice—which was adopted by many cities across the country. I'm not blaming anyone. I just want to point out the error so we can stop repeating it. This is probably the most important policy shift we must come to fully understand. Weak cities have a work center with a residential ring. Culturally and economically vibrant cities have a residential and mixed-use core with pockets of office and manufacturing radiating outward. Ironically, Northeastern cities, including Syracuse, used to be like that. OK, we screwed up. Water under the bridge. Let's rebuild.

A strong city creates a strong suburb. There are no legitimate divisive issues between city and county. We are all in the same boat.