Too Much Government in Too Many Places


Check out these words of New York Attorney General (and candidate for governor) Andrew Cuomo:

Our system of local government is broken … New York has more than 10,521 overlapping governments, including counties, towns, villages, school districts, special districts and public authorities. These entities impose layer upon layer of taxing structures — with citizens receiving multiple tax bills annually — resulting in the highest local property tax burden in the nation … To hold government to account the people must have a government they can understand. But what they have today instead at the local level is a ramshackle mess. The current local government system is the product of sheer historical accumulation — not logic, reason or common sense.

Well said. No, make that very well said. The Indiana Chamber and many, many others have put forth a strong case in recent years that township government in our state is beyond repair. Each new revelation of outlandish township reserves, unsightly administrative costs to deliver poor relief and outright criminal behavior further makes the point.

But like most challenges, it’s not just an Indiana problem. The Governing magazine article that featured the Cuomo quote also included the following. Maybe, just maybe, the momentum will grow, lawmakers will step up to the plate and all Hoosiers will benefit.

Rich Pahls, a Nebraska state senator from Omaha, has proposed merging many of his state’s 93 counties. The jurisdictions were designed for the days of the horse and buggy, he pointed out to the New York Times, not an era when “people will drive 100 miles to the grocery store.”

New Jersey, meanwhile, has some of the highest property taxes in the country, thanks in part to its 567 municipalities, a third of them with fewer than 5,000 residents, along with 611 school districts and 486 local authorities. Bergen County alone has 70 school districts and 76 superintendents.

New York State has more than 10,500 governmental entities that levy taxes and fees, and that depend on state largesse for any number of needs. This includes towns, villages and a multiplicity of water, sewer, lighting, school, 911 and other districts. Erie County, which is where Buffalo is located, has over 1,000 such local governing entities alone.

But while political leaders in the U.S. have been talking about local government rationalization, in Denmark, they’ve actually done it.

In 2007, Denmark shrunk the number of municipalities from 271 to 98. County government was completely eliminated. Fully 455,000 local government employees were involved in the restructuring; and 30,000 physically relocated to a new site. The government projects $274 million (1.6 billion DKK) in savings from the restructuring.

The implementation of this massive reform, which began in 2002, offers important lessons as other governments look to achieve big cost savings through rationalizing local government.

Anyone hoping to rationalize the delivery of services from the state level on down must first understand where the opportunities lie to eliminate duplication and inefficiency. Then, you need to lay the groundwork for public acceptance of the change. Both of these goals can be served by gathering hard data on what every unit of government does, how much it spends and what it gets for its money. Only after these goals have been achieved can you make that information readily available to the public.

This is not an easy task. The collection of data alone is enormous. But data gives you the ability to shine a light on what is taking place under the status quo, making the tough task of driving change a little easier.

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