ALBANY — Advocates for dissolving village governments in upstate New York often make the argument that taxpayer money will be saved through streamlined delivery of public services
But a review of more than 40 dissolution efforts over the past decade has found that most have been rejected by local voters.
It’s all explained by Lisa Parshall, an associate professor of political science at Daemen College in Amherst, in a new report she authored for the Rockefeller Institute of Government, an Albany think tank.
Even when dissolution studies show that scrapping a village government will result in savings, local voters often turn thumbs down on the idea, because of a combination of community pride, fear of the consequences of a merger and sympathy for public-sector workers whose jobs could be eliminated, Parshall said in an interview.
“To dissolve is to disrupt the current power structure,” Parshall said.
Such efforts can be complicated by resistance to the proposals from village police officers and firefighters whose jobs could be on the chopping block if a village government was to be scrapped, she said.
“It may seem un-neighborly to want to eliminate their jobs,” Parshall said.
Across the state, a total of 41 dissolution votes have been organized since 2010, when citizens were empowered with the right to initiate a referendum to disincorporate a village or town.
Out of those votes, 24 proposed village dissolutions were rejected, while the other 17 were approved, according to Parshall’s study.
One Long Island community, Mastic Beach, dissolved its village in 2016 — just six years after it incorporated.
The state now has 534 villages.
Reasons for rejecting dissolution go beyond worries over how public services might be impacted, according to Parshall’s study. There are also sentimental attachments residents have to the municipal buildings and ways of running government that they have become familiar with over the years.
“Disincorporation causes many residents to feel as though the community’s identity (and their way of life) is being erased, even though municipal dissolution does not, of course, eradicate the physical place, its residents, or the character of the community, as the vibrancy of many of the state’s hamlets demonstrates,” the report noted.
The impetus for the 9-year-old New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act — a law designed to make it easier to tee up a reorganization drive — was a general sense that New Yorkers cope with multiple layers of government, keeping taxes high, Parshall said.
At times, she noted, local officials running small village governments are reluctant to surrender the reins of power and actively oppose the dissolution referendum, Parshall said.
“When you have local elected officials become involved in these debates, they have a gravitas” in persuading voters against the idea.
But even when elected officials effectively advocate for the elimination of their own jobs by promoting a dissolution play, the argument to stick with the status quo can still carry the day, as former Cobleskill Mayor Mark Galasso found out in 2013.
A vocal advocate for dissolution of his village, Galasso, who runs a construction company, lost his mayoral post in an election that year to an anti-dissolution candidate, Linda Holmes.
Galasso said the drivers that often thwart dissolution efforts are “fear of the unknown,” voter apathy and concern that community control over local government will be lost.
He said proponents need to do better at selling their vision of not only reduced government overhead but also the potential for greater accountability. In a state that has four layers of government — village, town, city and state — it is often difficult to hold public officials accountable for their records, he suggested.
Parshall pointed out that dissolution attempts had a higher rate of success before the 2010 law became effective. But she noted the earlier laws required that only the municipal officials had to give the green light for a referendum, with no option for a citizen-initiated campaign.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com