McKinstry: A Rye demise could boost consolidations
Ask any New Yorker if they think the state needs 10,000 local governments and you're sure to get a resounding "Hell no!" before the bellyaching about taxes begins.
But ask some of those same people if they'd like to keep their own village or town and they'll say, "Hell yes!"
That's the rub: We like our local police, schools, parks and trash pickup, except, of course, when we are complaining about how much they cost.
Shedding goverment is as difficult as shedding pounds. We don't want to give up on favorites like double chocolate cheesecake -- or curbside leaf pickup. It's understandable, but it's no wonder that residents of New York State pay among the highest property taxes in the country.
Taxpayers in the Town of Rye -- not to be confused with Rye Neck, the City of Rye or the Villages of Rye Brook or Port Chester -- are wrestling with the consolidation question as the town is a step closer to actually eliminating itself from a confusing labyrinth of governments.
"Everybody is working themselves out of a job," Supervisor Joe Carvin, a Republican, told me Thursday, a morning after the town held a meeting to discuss a study that outlined how this municipality, which was incorporated sometime in the mid-1600s, could actually be dissolved.
"If we don't change the way we govern ourselves, seniors won't be able to stay in the community. . . . The middle class and young people will be forced to leave."
Carvin, supervisor since 2007, has been advocating for the elimination of his job -- but mostly just the town -- for years. Despite some progress, disbanding town government could still take years.
The path to consolidation is rarely easy and it's filled with complications like referendums, politics and will -- and suburbanites often don't like change.
A 2011 Marist Institute poll of New Yorkers indicated that more than half of those asked favored a more regional approach (think county governments), but far fewer wanted to dissolve their own localities.
Since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo first championed a law that gave voters a mechanism to consolidate and eliminate local governments when he was attorney general, few places have actually gone through with it.
Only nine of the state's 553 villages have gone away since 2008 and most had fewer than 1,000 residents. Another 20 villages considered such a move, but efforts were rejected by voters. Pushes to disband governments upstate -- including in Broome, Wayne and Monroe counties -- all failed last year.
Westchester for too long has been the highest-taxed county in America, with 46 school districts, 42 police departments, 17 towns, 22 villages and six cities. The closest Westchester has come to serious changes in services recently was when the Town of Ossining (not the village) merged its police force with the county's.
In the Town of Rye, population 43,880, the savings wouldn't be substantial, according to a report by the Center for Governmental Research. In fact, at estimated savings of $25 a year in Rye for a typical homeowner, and anywhere from $50 to $75 in Port Chester and Rye Neck, the "windfall" would be sort of ho-hum, especially when you consider that the median property tax bill in Westchester is about $10,000 a year.
"Consolidation from a sheer fiscal perspective isn't always a silver bullet," said Joseph Stefko, president and chief executive of the Center for Governmental Research, the nonprofit organization based in Rochester that wrote Rye's report.
But ancillary benefits are often streamlining services, better utilizing others and eliminating municipal borders that confound reason.
While this decision could be up to its taxpayers, eliminating the Town of Rye seems like a textbook case for consolidation.
The town, run by a part-time supervisor and a five-member council, is responsible for tax collection, a court and two public parks. At $3.5 million a year, its budget is a relatively small. There is no town-wide police department or school district that would have to merged, so you've got to figure that villages like Port Chester and Rye Neck and the City of Rye could easily pick up the slack -- without anybody knowing the difference.
Consolidating the big layers of schools, police and public works departments throughout Westchester may not be realistic just yet, but the Town of Rye might just show us the way.
Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.