In our June 25th post, “Scranton Comes to New York?”, we reported on the statement made by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, and reported in the Syracuse Post-Standard, that unless some dramatic changes soon take place, the city would be broke in three years. Toward the end of that piece, we asked the question of whether the short-term remedies typically proposed (the troika of budget cuts, increased state aid and mandate relief of some kind) were good enough.
“Are we simply throwing good money after bad? Are they the proverbial finger in the failing dam? After pouring in money and cutting public services and municipal workers (or their benefits) to solve yet the latest fiscal crisis, will we only find ourselves back where we started? Perhaps we should be paying more attention to an equally important question, namely whether the municipal structures in place today are, in the end, sustainable. Realistically, on an ongoing basis are they capable of providing an acceptable level of services and infrastructure? The questions go beyond intermunicipal agreements, shared services or even the occasional consolidation. They challenge us to think beyond the immediate and unavoidable need to cover the gap between revenues and expenditures and consider whether, going forward, there is a different model for governing ourselves, and providing public services, in this state.”
In an article written by Jessica Bakeman and reported in the August 2, 2012 edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (“Local Government’s Fiscal Crisis Linger in New York, Study Says”), former State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky raises the very same question. In response to the report issued by the Office of the State Comptroller (and reported on this Blog), Mr. Brodsky, who has advised the city of Yonkers on matters relating to its finances, stated that the problems confronting many of state’s cities (noted in the State Comptroller’s report as being particularly hard hit by the effects of the “Great Recession”) are not just the result of “bad behavior and lack of four-year plans”. “The economic model of some of the cities just doesn’t exist anymore.” Indeed, the very same point raised at the conclusion of our June 25th post, “Scranton Comes to New York?”.
The point raised by Mr. Brodsky, and earlier by our post, really raises a number of questions that should be asked regarding our cities (indeed, many of these same questions can, and perhaps should, be posed with respect to many of our other forms of local government). For example, are the physical boundaries of our cities any longer appropriate to support their continued viability or should the state consider enacting more flexible annexation laws (akin to those that existed in this state in the 19th century and exist in other parts of the country today)? What types of services should cities be responsible for providing (and which should they shed) and how should cities be able to pay for them? What services might better and more efficiently and equitably be provided and paid for at other levels of government, local or state? These questions don’t begin to touch the tip of the iceberg, but they do suggest the parameters of a broader, more serious and strategic discussion that should take place sooner rather than later as our localities deal with the necessary short-term responses to their fiscal challenges and begin to plan longer-term for their futures. Perhaps we should keep in mind what Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel once said: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”