February 19, 2014

Consensus Commission Gets a Pass

There's a whole lot of government going on, going on -- if not a whole lot of governing -- in New York State, that's for sure.  At last count, there were around 10,500 separate jurisdictions, according to Governor Cuomo in his State of the State address. That includes counties, cities, towns, villages, fire districts, water districts, sewer districts, district districts...

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney mentioned consolidation in a live chat on Syracuse.com last week. Here's what she said.
Consolidation is a hot topic and we are talking on many fronts. Parks is part of that discussion. County parks are one of the things we do best in county government and if we can help the city or towns and villages, we want to. The discussion has been about an inter-municipal agreement and we are in the early stages. Ryan McMahon and Bob Dougherty are the two leads at this point.  Food for thought: We have (State Senator) John DeFrancisco, (Assemblyman) Bill Magnarelli, Ryan McMahon, Stephanie Miner and myself as former city councilors. It seems like as good a time as any to talk about how to do this in a way that protects everyone.
A state senator, a state assemblyman, the mayor, the county executive, the leaders of the county legislature - seems like they could figure something out, doesn't it? So then, why do we need the Consensus CNY group, which I learned about reading an editorial in The Post-Standard?

Here's what caught my eye:
The commissioners visited with the Editorial Board last week. 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 old arguments from the usual suspects. 
Consensus commission? Are you wondering what the heck that is? Here's the explanation in a recent article.
So local government officials are teaming up with leaders from business, labor, schools, and neighborhood groups to figure out how to shrink the layers of public bureaucracy in Onondaga County. The group, called Consensus, plans to use the bulk of the money to hire a consultant. They plan to meet once a month and report their findings within the next 12 to 18 months.
The group, which was announced towards the end of January, already has a slick website, which identifies  the members (many of the names are familiar ones) and also the partner organizations, including Syracuse 20/20, CenterStateCEO, Focus Greater Syracuse, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters,  the Onondaga Citizens League, and the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of CNY.

Right off the bat, I'm confused. Why on earth would these high-powered civic leaders, wise businessmen and women, all these community organizations need to spend 'the bulk of" the $250,000 state grant that Senator DeFrancisco helped get, on a consultant to try and figure out what to do?  Isn't 'figuring out what to do' pretty much the mission of these organizations, some of which have been around since the 1990s, or even earlier?

And CenterStateCEO?  Heck, this organization itself was born from a consolidation: the merger of the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Development Association. When I see that they're part of a group that is going to spend a quarter-million dollars on a consultant, I'm left scratching my head, because I think they already know where to get the analysis done. Check out this snippet from the Message from the President on their website.
In a knowledge economy, smart regions prosper. CenterState New York is rich in intellectual resources, with the third highest concentration of colleges and universities in the nation.  In this region, there are 35 campuses educating more than 138,000 college students and conducting more than $2 billion in research and development annually.  
Uh, how about we tap into those colleges and universities, where we have people with no particular skin in the game, and send their best and brightest out across the county to come up with ways to solve our problems, as part of their course work?  Maxwell School anyone?

You don't have to go too far to find examples of where what we have today doesn't work well. For example, to the west, we find one fire department that has filed suit against, well, pretty much everyone: the town, the town board, the village where the fire department is located, the village trustees, the neighboring village, those village trustees, their volunteer fire department, their village fire department, another neighboring fire district, that board of fire commissioners, and their fire company, the second village's ambulance company, and Onondaga County. Had there been any reasonable consolidation in this neck of the woods, there likely would not even be a lawsuit.

And to the east, we have another village that, in the face of an almost 22% tax hike, is again trying to garner enough support to abolish the village police department and sign on with the town police. This was defeated a couple of years back, but that was before the tax hike. In the same village, on the other hand, the fire department is hoping to split off from the village, and - wait for it -- form their own district, which is the exact opposite of what's needed.  But imagine how this could look, if village residents were willing to consolidate or share police services with the town,and be better positioned to make a decision on their fire department.

Something's got to give, somewhere, somehow. Because, as the editorial noted, Onondaga County has 15 villages, 19 towns, 16 police departments and 55 fire departments. We have more heavy rescue trucks (40) than New York City (5), when we have 7.5 million fewer residents. This is no way to run a rodeo.

Frankly, I think the editorial board went easy on the Consensus commission; I'm surprised they're satisfied with it taking another 18 months or so to come up with a plan - and that's just the first step. Instead, I would have loved to see some encouragement to get this figured out faster, using readily available resources from within our knowledge community, and make something happen quickly.  Because either we figure out a way to consolidate and share services, or some of our Rubik's cube of jurisdictions may have to stop offering services all together.

When it gets to that point, will people look back and say, boy, I wish we had worked slower on this, and hired more consultants?

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