With the legislative season over, and as the Big Ugly and same sex marriage debates drift off into memory, and Senators and Assembly members scurry home to their Independence Day parades and summer vacations, a word or two of sanity and frugal budgeting in the quiet wake of the dysfunction that is New York State Politics.
For years now, politicians across the state have promoted cost savings through consolidation of services and the resulting efficiencies: neighboring school districts here, a coterminous village and town there, adjoining public works departments somewhere else. In the vast landscape that is our ongoing fiscal crisis (state, county & local budgets combined), these kinds of economic savings are small potatoes. Any legislator (or governor, for that matter) who is really serious about saving money and eliminating redundancy through consolidation needs to think bigger. Way bigger.
In short, it is time for our state leaders to throw away their microscopes and pick up their surveyors’ transits. It is time to redraw the map of entire counties and regions across New York.
By way of example, consider the Village of Saranac Lake, the poster hamlet for upstate geopolitical dysfunction: one village which overlaps two counties, three towns, two congressional districts, two State assembly districts, nestled high within the Adirondack Park. The inefficiencies are numerous, the taxes redundant, and governmental gridlock over almost any cost-saving measure is guaranteed.
Much of Saranac Lake’s overlapping political chaos dates to 1822, a time when the minds of Albany power brokers conjured up an Adirondacks populated by Wolverattlers, Grizzelopes and general outcasts from polite society. It seemed far easier to determine boundaries from the comfort of a down-state office using a straight edge on flat maps than to take into account more meaningful topographic boundaries such as watersheds, rivers and mountains. The region’s eventual settlement quite naturally followed these more practical constraints and the stage was set for the village’s perpetual governmental tug of war.
Quite recently, the mayor of Saranac Lake declared his village “the capital of the Adirondacks.” For all the scorn and derision this boast brought on, it might just be that he had a point. After all, like Saranac Lake on a grand scale, the Adirondack Park’s geography comprises two whole counties and parts of ten others. Portions of six congressional districts overlap the park. Likewise the park is partially represented by four state senators and six members of the assembly. The population and therefore power centers of all the overlapping political divisions lie outside the blue line, making it the political equivalent of a maple tree dangling a dozen sap buckets.
Attempts have been made over the years to redress the boundary chaos. As far back as 1913 Dr. Lawrason Brown of Saranac Lake proposed an eponymous county for the Adirondacks. Echos of this call for an administrative restructuring have been heard as recently as 2007. More recently a commission in the village of Saranac Lake has looked into changing the hamlet’s designation to a city, thereby seceding from its component township administrative zones. All these efforts have run athwart of deeply vested interests lying outside the proposed frontiers. It is abundantly clear that any change in the wasteful status quo will need to come from less subjective offices in Albany.
Part of the solution will soon rest in the hands of state legislators as they redraw congressional and state legislative districts. This is a prime opportunity to create representation more along lines of common interest and less along lines of political expediency. While this will not end the redundancy of the current county maps, in the Adirondacks at least it will guarantee that the interests of an important cultural, environmental and economic region is at the top of at least a few leaders’ agendas.
A far more productive solution to bureaucratic redundancy and a guarantee of long-term budget savings would be to redraw New York State’s county boundaries from scratch to more accurately reflect over three hundred years of settlement since westerners first began dividing the map. Such a plan is hard to imagine in a state that last saw a significant boundary change nearly eighty years ago. But in the age of GIS and Google Earth, there is less and less defense of lines that were drawn in the middle ages of manual cartography with little or no connection to the real world.
This Commentary first appeared in the Sunday Gazette of Schenectady