Perhaps one government would be better
By Kevin E. Foley
Before we get into another season of village elections, let’s pause and ask how much local government we really need. What if we had one government for the not quite 10,000 citizens within Philipstown’s borders? Beacon, for handy comparison, has one government for its 15,000 citizens.
To ask the question another way: How might we reshape our local taxpayer- supported resources so they work better at improving and protecting the quality of life for all residents of Philipstown? Do we really need two village governments (Cold Spring and Nelsonville) in addition to a town government?
What might happen if we eliminated the village governments? Even as we adapt and use technology to learn, shop, and communicate, we nevertheless cling to old ways of governing. Perhaps the reasons have more to do with sentimentality and insecurity than any real conviction that what worked in the 19th century still works well in the 21st.
The one-government idea rests on two understandings. First, most of the governmental factors that affect our quality of life originate in the capitals of Carmel, Albany and Washington D.C. The factors come, for example, in the form of laws that govern the handling of development projects; funding for transportation needs, street repair or disaster relief; mandates on how local government operates; or budget decisions on the level of services for senior citizens or other needs.
Second, the biggest task of local government is getting the paperwork right. This means organizing proposed projects so they are better understood at the outset; carefully reading the voluminous communication from other levels of government; and keeping elected and appointed officials up to date with changes so they can set priorities and respond to opportunities created by new or revised laws, regulations and budgets.
Streamlining the context and methodology for getting the paperwork right could, among other things, open opportunities for economic development, help identify funding sources, and resolve the challenges of public and private projects more quickly and effectively.
Conservative and liberal
Speaking through empowered representatives with a strong, unified and informed voice to Carmel, Albany and Washington D.C. and holding those representatives accountable for responding to their constituents would work better than the current wheel spinning and wishful thinking that too often passes for local inter-governmental relations these days.
The only jobs lost under this scheme are elected ones. Cold Spring and Nelsonville support eight positions. We might eliminate six of these and allocate the remaining two to increase the size of the town board from five to seven members with the goal of representing a broader diversity of views and political affiliations.
All the civil servants would stay to provide the actual services, but they would work in a single organization delivering those services in a more productive way. This efficiency is less about saving money and more about creating impact and greater economies of scale for the taxes we pay. It marries a conservative idea of less government with a liberal notion that government can solve problems and promote the general welfare.
One court, one highway, one building department
Suppose we had one consolidated court to dispose of all judicial matters. Do we really need a system that says you report to a different court depending on whether you were stopped for speeding in Nelsonville, Cold Spring, or North Highlands? This idea has seen years of discussion.
Suppose we had one highway department, a combination of Cold Spring’s and Philipstown’s, to maintain and clear roads on all our town (and village) streets in close coordination with the county and state departments. And while we’re at it, let’s drop the idea of electing a town highway superintendent and instead have the new town board hire the best available person after a public job search.
And how about one building department for getting information, requesting inspection, filing plans and other issues involving our homes and businesses in Philipstown? This idea was actually discussed last year and went nowhere even though as a practical matter it would assist residents and entrepreneurs by having a better-staffed and more efficient office for the entire citizenry.
From three clerks, a town manager
Suppose we had one appointed clerk’s office instead of the current three — one of which, the town clerk, is elected. Do we really need to elect the town clerk? Think about having one combined administrative office headed by a full-time, experienced town manager responsible for keeping government services on track, briefing the town board for its deliberations, carrying out the board’s decisions, coordinating the work of appointed committees, providing timely and transparent public information on a new up-to-date website and keeping a sharp lookout for funding opportunities on the county, state and federal level.
Consolidation is coming
Governor Cuomo and the state legislature have already introduced incentives in the form of taxpayer rebates to encourage local governments to find ways to share services and become more efficient. Our state Assemblywoman, Sandy Galef, has long argued for greater sharing of services and consolidation. In the years ahead this effort will doubtless intensify. Why not get ahead of the curve and show other villages and towns the way forward? We could make history instead of remaining tethered to historical models that no longer respond adequately to contemporary challenges.
Doubtless there are flaws in this thinking. People will make legal, political, historic and other objections. But, really, if you object to a unified government, one that would preserve and protect the best of what we have now, then you have the burden of explaining why we should maintain the current village/town system, which is often so slow and seemingly unable to respond to issues in a timely or strategic manner.