Tuesday, April 08, 2008

FROM LOHUD.COM--PHIL REISMAN ON ABOLISHING COUNTY GOVERNMENT

Task force may be the beginning of the end for wasteful county government
By Phil Reisman
Journal News columnist • April 8, 2008

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Some years ago, an ambitious study called Westchester 2000 looked into ways of streamlining the county's disparate municipal governments and school districts.

It was a top-down concept, aimed mainly at consolidating services on the local level. The goal was to slow down runaway taxes, but in the end only a handful of suggestions were ever adopted.


Perhaps the time has come to flip Westchester 2000 on its side. Why not look at the issue from the bottom up and examine the possibility of abolishing county government? Give it a name - Westchester 2100.

As it happens, something along the lines of a Westchester 2100 is already in motion.

Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner and Yonkers City Councilwoman Joan Gronowski yesterday announced the formation of a citizens' task force whose mission will be to weigh the pros and cons of doing away with a top-heavy and increasingly unpopular layer of government, a juggernaut of patronage that carries a $1.8 billion budget as well as a great deal of political baggage.

Feiner has been a voice in the wilderness for years, ever since 1990 when he served on the county Board of Legislators and had an epiphany about the inherent weakness and costly redundancy of county government in relation to the state's overarching power.

At that time, the state refused to permit Westchester to initiate a bipartisan, property-tax stabilization act, which hinged on increasing the sales tax by 1.5 percent. As a result, the county was faced with the prospect of drastically raising property taxes or laying off workers.

In an op-ed piece he wrote, Feiner recalled an instance in 1974 when the county sought to change the name of the Department of Transit to the Department of Transportation. The county board had to hold a public hearing and send a home-rule request up to Albany for approval. After Senate and Assembly committees met on the "issue," the bill was finally signed into law by the governor.

The absurdity of this is obvious.

And now Feiner, with Gronowski's support, has renewed his proposal to kill off county government altogether because, as he put it in a press statement, "about 75 percent of county government functions" are already mandated by the state and federal governments. To them, the question of what county government does and why it is needed is only rhetorical. The state's already in charge, so why have a superfluous layer between local municipalities and Albany?

Feiner's critics would say his timing represents a clever attempt to deflect political fallout from a 21.5 percent tax increase that was imposed in his own town last month. The county property tax rate in Yonkers, where Gronowski is serving her first term on the council, just shot up 24 percent, causing a loud collective groan from the city populace.

Political motives aside, there may be a perfect storm brewing. Three factors are feeding the storm - a persistent unrest about high taxes in general, a spike in anxiety brought about by predictions that we are fast slipping into a long-term recession, if we're not in the midst of one already, and a perception of governmental arrogance exacerbated by such figures as county board Chairman Bill Ryan, whose rapid expansion of the legislative branch has included a recent effort to secure a substantial pay raise for himself and other legislators.

What's unclear is whether the storm will peter out before it strikes Ryan and the other denizens of the Michaelian Office Building. Feiner and Gronowski, who appear to be dead serious, will hold their first meeting at 7:30 p.m. April 30 at the Grinton I. Will Library in Yonkers.

Doing away with county government, as was done in Connecticut, presents a huge, complicated challenge. There are 62 county governments in the state, and not all of them have a county executive or a board of legislators. The level of distaste for county government varies from county to county.

Because of competing interests, mustering a statewide effort would be difficult. For instance, shifting the management of services to the state would raise state income taxes to offset some of the reduction in property taxes. That would be popular in well-off suburban counties like Westchester, where many in the middle class own their own homes, though perhaps not as popular in urban areas.

Getting self-serving politicians to voluntarily put themselves out of business would be nothing short of revolutionary, too. Just try to imagine Andy Spano making a declaration that it's time to pack it in.

This would take a lot of time. That's why I call it Westchester 2100.

But there is an alternative, a kind of halfway measure that doesn't have to be carried out in Albany, but in White Plains. Form a heavyweight panel of legal and financial experts, say, 10 in all, whose mission would be to quietly and methodically study the matter from every conceivable angle and then draft a new county charter to reduce the size of government.

Here's just a few results that could come from this. Playland Amusement Park, a perennial money-loser, could be scaled back to a passive park. The Bee-Line Bus Service could be sold to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Either the county Board of Legislators or the county executive's office could be sent to the dustbin of history.

Retained would be the basics - the county clerks, the courts and district attorney and social services.

The next step would be to release the proposal before a major election, especially if an open seat such as the county executive's job was at stake.

That way the candidates would be forced to take a position on it. This isn't just run-of-the-mill arm twisting. It's more like a sumo match.

Who knows? The Feiner-Gronowski effort may be the start of something big.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is unbeleivable. Paul, 20% tax increase, Feiner giving advice on how to cut costs. HAHAHA. We need to cut cut cut in Greenburgh.

Anonymous said...

County government is a huge waste!

Anonymous said...

Town government is a waste. Paul doesnt care about the B budget. No one has controls over expenditures. He lets department heads spend what they want.

Most of your county go for Medicare (mandated by state), buses, county parks. At least county parks are useful, UNLIKE TAXTER RIDGE. The County has golf courses and lots of other great parks.

Hellz no! said...

Paul,

I'm beginning to think you suffer from ADD/ADHD?

Every single week you run with another "bright idea" and you never stay focused on the big, town wide issues at hand. Hardly anything gets successfully solved in Greenburgh, yet you want to waste your time with this. FOCUS! FOCUS!

The upside is that you'll move off of this in a week or two when you read something like" dog poop used as a viable fuel resource" somewhere and take up that cause for the next few weeks.

Anonymous said...

The Town Board and Supervisor has saved substantial amounts of money this year. The Theodore Young Community Center, alone, has seen six figure savings and greater community participation.

Anonymous said...

And that is why we have a 23 % tax increase. Cut overtime. Cut cut cut.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 1:01,

Is that a cut from a bloated budget, or an actual cut of personnel, etc from last year.

Anonymous said...

"12:23 Hellz No" is exactly right, which is why none of us should worry. Just go back in this blog to see all the ideas that quickly fizzled away; it's both sad and humorous. What's not humorous is the neglect of everyday municipal responsibilities - what the taxpayers actually pay for.

Anonymous said...

Some of Paul's blog idea get blogged into law. Other ideas fade. Paul's track record of substantial legislative accomplishments is higher than most.

Anonymous said...

Mike Kolesar: Stand up and tell the Town Board that Ed Krauss and Hal Samis were right. The library should not get the $400,000 extra.

Anonymous said...

Who was the lady sitting on the side of Ella who accused Feiner in taking the opinion of Samis against hers and the rest of the library representatives.
Well lady two citizsens were telling us the truth but of course you would not know the truth if it were staring you in the face.
Paul you and the rest of the board must not give away this money.
their method of getting money from the tax payers is out right thievery.They proposed the plan that called for so much money and that's what they got.
They swore up and down that they could work with what they got.
As you said this does not go after the fact.
We're not sleeping now the library board feels that they can chip away all the money they want a little at a time since they have two of their famous oldtime board members tht gave it to Feiner to make him look bad.
Yes Paul,Sheehan and Juettner will get even again not only with you but also the tax payers.

Anonymous said...

While calling, correctly, for the abolishment of most county government offices, isn't Paul being hypocritical by not promoting the elimination of similarly wasteful and duplicative town government functions within Greenburgh? Other than the independent school district administrations (arguably), are there any services provided by the towns that could not be more efficiently and cheaply provided by a Greenburgh-wide administration? If you are tilting at windmills, at least start with those in your own backyard.

Anonymous said...

The overwhelming percentage of Town residents are very happy with their school districts and most decidely do not want them combined or under Paul's control.

Anonymous said...

It might be smarter to simply do away with Town government. Failing that, creating term limits for Town officials would insure a flow of changing ideas and goals - beyond the endless reelection of incumbants and incompetents.

Anonymous said...

the first to go should be diana the waste juettner

Anonymous said...

The Town needs to address shortcomings as well as the Fairview fire district. One has a 20% increase and one tried to pass a 9 million dollar bond without telling a soul. I only found out this week they held an election last month Only 200 people voted! That's just wrong. I don't know which is worse -- Westchester, Greenburgh, or Fairview.

Anonymous said...

Agree that county government ain't necessary.

Anonymous said...

10:28
you probably voted for the library.
only 4,000 people voted for that BIIIIIGGGGG mistake, out of how many 35,00? some people just don't care.

Anonymous said...

4,000 people total, voted and it passed by 66 votes. And now they want more money for that disaster

Anonymous said...

Winning by 66 votes there should have been a recount but you know what the attitude was at that point, we have to get rid of Feiner
But as luck has it we got Feiner back and more and more money added to this library disaster.
True it was the hatred of the previous board toward Feiner that was the whole key to getting the referendum passed.
If Feiner had said yes the board would have voted against it.
We still have in power two of the old board members that screwed us.
Most of the rulings will come from these two especially if Feiner shows some interest in whatever is in front of the whole board.
We have to see how the two new members will be in voting on ways to save the taxpayers money.


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Taxes to high said...

why not merge village,town and county governments. These villages don't need government. They just need a board to express there opinions.

Anonymous said...

Because the villages want the TOV to pay for everything and then have use of it.