How on earth did the county of Chautauqua go from a balanced budget in 2006 to an $18 million deficit in 2012?
"Why cannot someone just figure this out!"
That was my first thought when I read an editorial weeks ago based on a study by the state Comptroller Office regarding the cost of construction per mile of road. Why cannot anyone figure this out? At first glance it seemed straightforward to compare the cost of construction of a mile of highway anywhere in the county. However there is no comparison in building a village road to building a town road or a county road or a state road.
I called the New York state comptroller's office in Albany after I read the aforementioned article and they admitted that they did not take into consideration the differences of road construction types for the different levels of highway.
Look at the numbers
After much thought and deliberation, I believe the question boils down to this: Why do we have so many levels of government when they are overall completely repetitive? We have 27 towns, 15 villages, two cities and 18 school districts. It makes no sense to have 27 town highway superintendents, 27 town clerks and so on. This is unimaginable.
In comparison, the county roads and bridges are managed by only three managers.
There are well over 500 elected officials in this county. The problem is not the work force as much as it is the management.
We already have great examples of shared services in this county and it is proven to work. Let's expand on that and get government in this county boiled down to a workable unit. We are acting like the federal government in this county; we need to change this now.
Seven county districts
The best case scenario: form seven county districts to include what is now county, town, village and city governments, and highway departments.
Obviously this is an ambitious project. So let's begin smaller. For example, the two cities Jamestown and Dunkirk-Fredonia would each be a district and the remainder of the county would be split into five other districts.
Using an example of five towns comprising each district, the supervisors from each town could form the initial board of the new districts - adding extra representation in the interim, of course, as needed to balance the population. Right there alone we would be getting rid of up to 20 elected board members for the new district, four elected highway superintendents, four town clerks, and eight judges. Notice, by the way, that it is the management that is downsized, not the work force.
The new districts could then hold elections for one supervisor, one district clerk, one highway superintendent and two district judges. Additionally, each district could possibly take charge of weed control for their portion of the lake. This simply makes sense. And down the road, think of the cost savings if the schools within the districts are merge. That would eliminate 11 school superintendents and 214 other elected posts.
The estimated cost savings for everything would be about $7 million per year.
Look at the numbers
Moving on to the county government where much continuing waste is evidenced, we need to rid ourselves of the county executive position and replace it with an appointed county manager who will truly work for the people to oversee the services that would continue to be handled on a county basis, such as social services, elections and health.
Such an appointive position would not have to be concerned about political strongholds; rather it would be first and foremost responsive to good governmental spending. Should the position become too political, that individual can be replaced by the district supervisors at any time. We would not have to wait for the normal four- year election process as our current situation.
Next, each of the supervisors for the newly created seven county districts can act as the Board of Supervisors, which would eliminate the over-burdensome 25-person county legislature that is usually deadlocked on decision making. Municipal charters can be changed and referendums can be forced onto the ballot when necessary. This simply makes sense and is common sense in this time of burdensome levels of government.
All government, especially local government, needs to be responsive to its electorate. Where has the accountability gone? With more and more elections being uncontested, accountability goes out the window. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has initiated $79 million incentive for government consolidation - now is the time to take advantage of it.
So, where do we go from here? We have now "set the table" for a smaller, yet accessible and better functioning government for Chautauqua County. The next step is implementation. In the columns, I plan to write regarding how to best make this plan a reality.
Sid Compton is the former Chautauqua town supervisor