To the Editor:
We are all aware of the challenging moment and dire circumstances we face as a nation, a state and locally. As many have said, and I agree, we need to seize this moment as an opportunity to change course and reevaluate the way we do business in government and in schools. No level of the public sector should be excluded from this evaluation.
While the federal government has agreed to step in and help ensure cash flows to our states, schools, infrastructure and businesses to keep our economy on track, clearly we can not use this as a blank check. Instead, we need to check ourselves and look for savings across the board.
For the last two years I have been focusing on the need to share, streamline and consolidate services and levels of government. In 2007, the Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Effectiveness (LGEC) made some bold recommendations, which included such areas for overhaul as centralized assessing, tax collection, emergency dispatch and civil service commissions. It also recommended sharing jail facilities, consolidating courts, enabling counties to share functions with other counties and municipalities, and allowing for collective bargaining agreements to be renegotiated when such mergers and consolidations take place. Further recommendations from the LGEC included modernizing the way in which municipalities and school districts are structured to reduce overlap and streamline operations for less expensive more efficient results.
As a follow up, in 2008 the Commission on Property Tax Relief reiterated the LGEC’s findings and added to them, suggesting a property tax cap, reducing or funding at the state level unfunded mandates, and a property tax circuit breaker which would look at income versus property taxes paid to make the equation more equitable. Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, who led that commission has spearheaded efforts in his own county to look for more efficient ways to do business with school districts, municipalities and counties working together to avoid overlap and duplication of services, examining such areas as information technology & telecommunications services, cooperative purchasing, audit services, debt issuance, and legal services among others.
Last year I hosted a roundtable to bring together local school districts, BOCES component school districts and municipalities to discuss ways they could broaden their efforts to share services. Following that, I sent out a survey to my constituents asking them about areas which they thought would be good for sharing. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of sharing more. Such areas as “consolidating services between levels of government,” “regional instead of village/town courts,” printing services, parks and recreation, tax receivers, highway departments, legal services, auditing activities, fueling and sanitation, police forces, and assessors were favored by 65% or more of respondents as acceptable for sharing. For a long time, government has pointed to its citizenry as being less than willing to make compromises in certain areas which might impact quality of life. Surely, this survey points out that the tide is turning.
This February, I followed up with another discussion among the elected officials from each of the municipalities in my assembly district as well as county leaders from Putnam and Westchester to share ideas, discuss obstacles, and pave the way for changes to be made. Areas which some of the municipalities have tackled or are looking into involve appointed instead of elected highway superintendents, electronic court hearings, shared tax collections, using state troopers instead of having a local police unit, sharing water and waste treatment facilities, fueling stations, legal services and more. Westchester County has many web pages dedicated to shared services offerings at http://www.westchestergov.com/aboutwestchester_sharedservices.htm.
Al DelBello who co-moderated the roundtable with me and who is a member of the LGEC as well as chairman of the Westchester County Association commented that as good as the efforts were which each of these governments was making, this was really just the “low hanging fruit.” Bigger changes, like eliminating parts or even levels of government, are needed to make a significant impact on cost. It is necessary for the turning tide to press for action.
The next part is the hard part: to be specific, willing, and supportive of local communities by recommending what citizens are willing to change within their own communities, or share with another. I am in the process of forming a citizen’s task force in the 90th Assembly District to focus on grassroots efforts at overhauling the way we do business. It is important for you to speak to your local governments and school officials about how your tax dollars are being spent. I call upon all those anxious for change to stand up and work with your neighbors to get the job done. The time for talk is over. It is through small steps by community residents that we can take action towards streamlining and consolidation. Only together can we take the necessary bold steps to bring about real change.
I welcome any feedback on this subject and encourage everyone to look critically at all levels of government to work towards scaling back excess and making for greater efficiencies, less waste, and lower taxes.
Member of Assembly, 90th District
2 Church Street
Ossining, NY 10562