February 14, 2016

Consensus: To Boldly Go (Part 1)

It was just shy of two years ago that I first learned about the Consensus group, the gang of volunteers who undertook the mission of modernizing government for us here in Syracuse and Onondaga County.

In this post from February 2014, I recounted how Consensus had been awarded a $250K state grant to hire a consultant to help come up with a plan, and how commissioners visited with the editorial board of the Post Standard, and that the editors of the paper were going to be firm with this group:
We intend to hold them to their promises of real results. We urge them to be bold. Listen to the naysayers, but ignore the ones who put their self-interests above the community's. We urge them to include new voices in the discussion, not just the same arguments from the usual suspects. 
And, at that time, I wondered why we were going to be patient for some 18 months to have this group and their consultants come up with a plan to do something about our 15 villages, 19 towns, 16 police departments and 55 fire departments. And of course, the City of Syracuse.  I closed the post with this thought:
When it gets to that point (when one or more of these entities was no longer able to provide services) will people look back and say, boy, I wish we had worked slower on this and hired more consultants?
Well, the Consensus team released their preliminary recommendations three weeks ago, outlining several significant areas of overlap of the many and varied governmental jurisdictions in Onondaga County. And again, the folks at the paper are chiming in, encouraging us now, the citizens, not the experts.  Here's part of the editorial from January 29th, a few days after the report was released:
Citizens and leaders of our community and our region need to talk a lot more, think more deeply about the commission's recommendations, question the assumptions of each other and ourselves, and summon the will to challenge the status quo.
The status quo has history, time and inertia on its side. But the status quo is, in a word, unsustainable.  
Hindsight being 20/20, both of these editorials are spot on: we needed the Consensus commission to be bold, and we all need to pay attention, think about what they recommended, and participate in the discussion on what the report and its recommendations mean to us.

On the former, the ask to be bold, what do you think?  Did the preliminary recommendations go far enough?

The most-talked-about idea, under the bucket of Creating Regional Governance Capacity, includes moving to
Establish a process toward creating a new city-county government and service delivery structure that leverages the functional and scale similarities of the region's two largest local governments...(where) there is approximately $20 million in potential cost elimination through combination of governance, administrative and service delivery infrastructure over time
At the same time, the group recommended a
formal mechanism and defined process whereby towns and villages in the Syracuse - Onondaga community can join the new city-county framework over time - an "opt-in" process whereby they can join by a vote of the constituents in that municipality. 
Is it truly bold to recommend combining city and county government and leave the towns and villages out of it? And why is it left to those who live outside the city to pick and choose the time at which they come online with the new thinking, if ever, when city residents are expected to swallow the bitter pill of metropolitan government first, and quickly?

It seems, at least on the surface, that saving $20M is the highest priority, unless you're in the suburbs and beyond, in which case constituent service is still the measure of good government. It seems that, as long as we figure out how to save the money, we can let that history and inertia, that status quo, remain in effect for those who have left the city in the rear-view mirror of their moving van.

And while I certainly don't disagree with saving the money - as I noted above, there's some low-hanging fruit for the City and County to pick, which they should harvest quickly - it seems that there's much that could be done by the County Legislature to move everyone in the "towns and villages in the Syracuse-Onondaga community," as the Consensus report calls it, into the fold as quickly as possible, not as slowly as they would choose.

I hope the final recommendation address this aspect more forcefully.

That idea of a "Syracuse-Onondaga community" looks to be one of the bigger stumbling blocks to the success of this whole concept. That's where we have to talk a lot more, and think a lot more deeply.

More on that tomorrow.