When I am in New York, I spend time in both the village of Hastings-on-Hudson and the town of Greenburgh. It’s easy, since my New York home is in both.
Hastings-on-Hudson, population 7,849 as of the 2010 census, is located completely within the town of Greenburgh, population 88,400. Both are, in turn, part of Westchester County.
When my kids were growing up, they couldn’t cool off in the Greenburgh town pool; they had to join the Hastings pool instead. They were educated in schools that are part of the Hastings-on-Hudson Union Free School District, whose boundaries extend beyond the village itself. Some of their classmates belonged to the Greenburgh pool.
Greenburgh has a police force, but its cars never drive past my house, because Hastings-on-Hudson has a force of its own, along with a Department of Public Works that fixes streets and collects trash. Being too small to support a paid fire department, the village relies on volunteers, who do quite a good job. But, just the same, I’m glad smoke detectors and other modern improvements have reduced the frequency and consequences of house fires.
As homeowners in both Hastings-on-Hudson and Greenburgh, we pay taxes to both. Our town taxes are reduced to reflect some services that the village provides. Overall, however, we pay around three times as much in taxes, per dollar of property value, in New York as we do on our main home in Florida or our vacation home in Vermont.
As I have written here before, companies control cost by eliminating redundancy. The public sector, however, tends to be less concerned with efficiency and the economies of scale. The result, in New York and some other places, is a proliferation of tiny localities, each with its own facilities, its own staff and its own taxes.
Hastings-on-Hudson and Greenburgh are just two of more than 10,000 local jurisdictions in New York state. Efforts to reduce that number have met fierce opposition. In 2009, as attorney general, current Gov. Andrew Cuomo helped push through a law to make it easier to dissolve superfluous layers of government. Under that law, called the New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, 10 percent of residents or 5,000 registered voters, whichever is fewer, can force a vote on whether to consolidate or dissolve duplicate jurisdictions. But few empowered citizens have emerged to take advantage of the law.
Michigan also recently passed a law to enable citizens to do away with unnecessary municipalities. The first merger proposed under that law failed last month, with residents of the tiny Onekama Village, located on Lake Michigan, voting 139 to 86 against joining with surrounding Onekama Township.
New Jersey saw a big win for consolidation last year when neighboring Princeton Borough and Princeton Township agreed to a merger that is expected to save about $3.2 million. But other New Jersey towns have been reluctant to follow the Princetons’ example, and the state continues to be dotted by so-called “doughnut towns,” where one municipality completely surrounds another.
In all three states, governors have aggressively advocated consolidation, recognizing that the high property taxes levied to support so many municipalities are a major impediment to economic progress.
Critics of municipal duplication are generally quick to blame resistance to consolidation on local public employees, who fill those duplicative jobs, and on county-level politicians, who are accused of using miniature jurisdictions as patronage mills. There is a fair amount of truth to this. In local politics, where elections are often determined by a handful of votes, it is easy for entrenched interests to keep unwelcome change at bay.
But there is more to the story. The truth is that, despite the inefficiencies, most people like their small towns. In some cases, opposition to mergers is a pure matter of dollars and cents. Residents of one district may not want to pay taxes to fix up a pool on the other side of town, or they may be reluctant to share resources with neighbors who have less to put into the pot.
Often, however, there is something else going on - the inexplicable (at least to me) lure of the hyperlocal. The localists usually put arguments about schools front and center. It’s true that the schools in Hastings-on-Hudson, where each grade has only around 100 to 120 students, are excellent. But I expect that has far more to do with the size of individual classrooms and the socioeconomic makeup of the district (heavily populated by doctors, lawyers, psychologists and other professionals) than with the size of the district. Neighboring localities have similarly high-performing schools. I see no reason why our districts cannot consolidate to save on administration and overhead without compromising educational performance.
My guess is that the defenders of local government really want smallness for its own sake. In large suburban areas like Westchester, whose countywide population is just under 1 million, the inconveniences of small-town life, including the nitpicking and nosiness that plague actual small towns, can begin to look a lot like charm. So the borders that were originally drawn when people traveled on horseback and left calling cards for their friends continue to cut across modern landscapes.
While my neighbors may be willing to pay extra to have a smaller local government, I’d be happy just to have a smaller tax bill. Or maybe take a dip in that Greenburgh pool.