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A CALL FOR SMALLER GOVERNMENT
January 3, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
The call for smaller government has been a rallying cry for so long that it has become meaningless. The only problem is no one ever really knew what smaller government meant. In Chautauqua County and Jamestown people clamor that taxes are too high and that governments spend too much and that county and city employees make too much money. In all fairness, lawmakers are faced with a dilemma; taxes are too high, but people complain—not whether the streets are plowed, but plowed in a timely fashion. Well intentioned people, good citizens demand public order but do not want to pay for that law part and call for the elimination of road patrols by county deputies.
With what appears to be an alarming increase in arson fires—Jamestown is literally burning and now is probably not a good time to reduce the number of firefighters or suggest a volunteer fire service. Efforts to change, to make government smaller, to lower taxes and to eliminate fraud and abuse have seldom ever amounted to much. It is as if there exists an unspoken understanding between elected officials and an often irate citizenry. Despite outspoken critics, lawmakers understand that people need and want and like government services.
It has been that tacit understanding that has stifled critical discussions about a remedy for higher taxes and the delivery of government services. Elected officials in Chautauqua County have long since worn out the once popular phrase “shared services” as a euphemism for maintaining the status quo—creating the illusion of motion. How many times have County Executives and Legislators and Mayors and Supervisors introduced budgets as products of toil and agonizing decisions that resulted in a “reduction in your tax rate”—a good example of an illusion of motion. It took us a long time to figure that one out—reducing the tax rate is not the same thing as reducing the tax levy—you know the amount we actually pay in taxes.
We have worked our way through “regionalism” without the desired results to a new phrase designed to keep the illusion of motion alive. The current working phrase is “consolidation” as in the Jamestown Police Department being “consolidated” with the County Sheriff’s Department. Sounds good and if I heard correctly the cash strapped State (or was it the Feds?) thought the idea was so good that they were going to ante a pot of money--$700,000 I think—to study that possibility. A good idea or an illusion of motion? In either case, elected officials have kicked that can down the road for the next two or three election cycles. However, one County official has come up with a thought provoking suggestion that recognizes that the only way government can be made smaller is to eliminate government.
County Legislator Keith Ahlstrom (D-Dunkirk) and Chairman of the Chautauqua County Legislature has suggested county residents could fare well enough with one governmental unit—county government. He posits that it is pointless—even laughable—that Dunkirk with a population of less than 13,000 inhabitants be classified as a city. Dunkirk is a city with its own fire department (partially manned by volunteers) of which Mr. Ahlstrom is the full time Chief. Mr. Ahlstrom is paid by the city and serves with a full time police force and a director of development and a director of public works and a city clerk and a city lawyer and a city council and a full time Mayor.
Mr. Ahlstrom’s announcement should have shattered windows throughout the county, but despite prominent press coverage, his suggestion has barely caused a ripple. Mr. Ahlstrom has done what no other politician has dared; he has challenged 27 Towns, 15 Villages and 2 Cities to justify their continued existence as a unit of government.
Whether intentional or not, Mr. Ahlstrom raises the argument that there is not a single service provided by local government that is not duplicated in a similar fashion by county government. Legislator Ahlstrom’s suggestion would make government smaller and cheaper; there might be an argument about efficiency—a rural road or a city street might not get plowed as often, but would that really be a hindrance?
Urban dwellers casually agree that Celeron, Ellington, Cherry Creek, Forestville and Falconer could do without Village Governments, but what about Jamestown and Dunkirk? Small cities have more pathways to the Federal Government for federal grants, but that could be remedied by an enterprising Congressman. It would probably make sense economically to rid ourselves of 44 layers of taxing governmental units.
Our two cities probably have combined budgets of $50 or $60 millions of dollars that can be added to the budgets of 27 Towns and 15 Villages. Now we are talking about a lot of money—I do not know how much exactly. Would $300 millions of dollars sound right? Towns like to defend Justice Courts and that defense might even be justified, but county prosecutors appear in each and every Justice Court. The same prosecutors could just as easily appear in district courts at both ends of the county. Towns take pride in local Highway Departments that perform exemplary work. No argument here. Town crews do splendid work, but do we really need our favorite road plowed three times when twice, although admittedly not as good, would be adequate?
The very best argument for abandoning Jamestown as a single unit of government lies buried in its own history. We are already headed in that direction. Jamestown once had its own Social Services Department and paid the county a handsome sum to take it over thirty or more years ago. Same thing happened with the Jamestown Airport that is now the “Chautauqua County Airport,” and we shuffled off our city-wide bus system to the county in exchange for the Chautauqua Area Rural Transit System, CARTS.
Although CARTS does not have the fixed routes and the number of stops as its predecessor it seems to work well enough and does it more cheaply than the system it replaced. JCC, a splendid two-year college that bears the name of the city in which it was founded is a more recent example of “consolidation” which is a euphemism for a complete and total “take over” of services Jamestown can no longer afford. Chautauqua County has already taken over the construction and maintenance of all of the city’s bridges and a large segment of its streets.
Since we are relying more and more on county services we might ought to hasten the process. Our community will not disappear. We will still be called Jamestown. We will still have City Hall with the same workers and instead of grumbling to city council and the Mayor we can quarrel with our County Legislators who would have an office in City Hall.
This is an election year for the County Executive and County Legislature and it would be encouraging if they take this on as a campaign issue, but it is doubtful that will happen. Instead the Legislature is apt to once again become bogged down in that infertile, inane and ineffective argument that either reducing the number of legislators or denying legislators insurance is a panacea for our budgetary ills. While those issues might be good policy arguments neither is an economic argument worthy of debate. However, that did not stop the Legislature from nailing one and another’s feet to the floor for nearly an entire session of the Legislature while they bickered over those issues.
Although expectations for eliminating waste and making government more efficient has all the trappings of a Quixotic Tale, Mr. Ahlstrom’s suggestion deserves serious debate. A single unit of county government might not be as efficient, but it surely would be smaller and cheaper and would put a stop to kicking those same political cans down the road.
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