City

Final recommendation on Syracuse-Onondaga merger pits Miner against county, state officials

Zach Barlow | Staff Photographer

The Consensus commission held about 100 community meetings throughout the county last year to gather community input on the government and service consolidation, said Cornelius Murphy, Jr., co-founder of Consensus.

After more than a year of deliberation and public discussion, an initiative to merge the governments of the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County has moved forward in what officials described as a “historical starting point.”

The citizen group Consensus on Thursday released a 112-page report detailing its final recommendations, which identify areas of savings in 16 categories and push forward the idea of consolidating government between the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County. This comes after the group — composed of 19 legislators and community members — released its preliminary recommendations in February last year on merging the two governments along with multiple government services.

The report calls for a referendum to be held this year and for the consolidation transition to begin in 2018. The idea to merge the city and county governments has been meet with opposition from some in Syracuse.

The final report recommended consolidation of the Syracuse Police Department and the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, unification of village and town courts to establish a regional court system as well as reducing and redrawing service areas for fire departments.

By unifying those services, there could be between $7.9 and $9.9 million in savings generated annually, the report states.

The report also proposed a new legislative body with 29 district and four at-large representatives. By doing so, the report states that the constituent ratio — the number that indicates how many constituents are represented per one legislator — would be brought down to 16,103 citizens per legislator. The report emphasized the ratio is substantially lower than the current ratio of 28,834 citizens per Syracuse Common Councilor or 27,558 per Onondaga County legislator. The report claims that could help individual members address specific regional concerns better.

The report additionally highlights that the city-county consolidation could yield savings between $8.7 and $22.9 million a year.

“A new government offers a unique opportunity to enhance our structure of governance — especially its effectiveness, responsiveness and inclusiveness,” the report states.

The Consensus commission held about 100 community meetings throughout the county last year to gather community input on the government and service consolidation. The group received input from about 6,000 people, said Cornelius Murphy, Jr., co-founder of Consensus and former president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

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Murphy said the commission met repeatedly last year to sort through the public comments. In response to feedback, he said, Consensus provided a timeline in its final report because the preliminary report did not have one for navigating the potential merger.

On government consolation, the Consensus report anticipates a referendum to be held in 2017, a transition year to take place in 2018 and the first year of the new city-county and regional council to begin in 2019.

“We are very clear that this is a starting point. This isn’t the end,” Murphy said.

But some residents in Syracuse have opposed the consolidation. In one meeting held last March, some Syracuse residents openly showed their skepticism on the merger proposal, expressing concern that the city would lack representation in a new city-county government and that county residents would have substantial power over city residents and control decision-making.

High-level officials in the city and the county are at odds over the final report. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner vocally criticized the recommendation in a statement on Thursday.

Miner said the final recommendations neglected to mention the consolidation of school districts that would cripple their ability to educate children. She also said the proposed mergers would weaken the voice of marginalized groups within the city and push Syracuse to “eternal poverty” by taking away city assets and shifting the financial burden onto city residents.

“It is rife with ambiguities and omissions. Its section on governance is fatally flawed since it assumes the existence of legal authority to abolish the City, which simply does not exist,” Miner said in the statement, urging Syracuse residents to oppose any efforts to realize the recommendations. “… It resembles more a plan for the worst form of corporate looting than a progressive document designed to meet the needs of Central New York residents.”

However, Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney said in a statement to The Daily Orange that she encourages people to approach the report “with an open mind and study the facts.”

“This process will continue long after many of us are gone. This is a discussion about our children and their futures and deserves to be discussed and debated in an open and unbiased forum,” Mahoney said in the statement. “I will do my part to make sure that members of the community have good answers and factual information.”

Miner’s frustration is also directed at New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo. During his regional State of the State tour in January, the Democratic governor proposed a plan requiring each county outside of New York City to come up with a plan to reduce duplication of government services for efficiency and property-tax savings.

Under his plan, county executives or county managers are responsible for making a draft proposal and submitting it to county legislatures by Aug. 1, according to a press release from Cuomo’s office. Unless a county legislature rejects the proposal with a 45-day reviewing period, it would be put on referendum during elections in November, when Syracuse will also hold a mayoral election. If the legislature rejects the proposal, county executives will have to make a new proposal for November 2018.

Cuomo previously earmarked $500 million for the central New York region in his Upstate Revitalization Initiative in 2015 partly to support Consensus’ work on government consolidation.

Despite Miner’s resistance, the city’s fiscal situation is dire. The city’s 2016-17 budget — that includes up to $706 million in spending — shows the city would be projected to use $12.1 million from reserves to balance the budget, meaning the city incurs a $12.1 million budget deficit. The city reserve is projected to decrease to $42.9 million after this fiscal year that ends on June 30.

Murphy, the Consensus co-founder, said that other towns and villages in the area are in similar fiscal situations. He added that many people in those villages and towns, unlike city residents, don’t understand the severity of the situation.

Historically, government mergers take years and sometimes fail altogether. A merger between the city of Louisville and Jefferson County in Kentucky took three attempts in referendums — in 1956, 1982 and 1983 — before being approved in 2000. Merger discussions between the city of Buffalo and Erie County in New York in 2005 ebbed away despite a commission’s report on the potential consolidation.

Murphy said the Buffalo-Erie County consolidation failed because a commission tasked to facilitate the consolidation did not engage with the public enough and did not understand the fiscal situation in Erie County properly.

“We have much better sense of where all our 36 governments are in Onondaga County in terms of their financial stability or a lack of their financial stability,” Murphy said.

Linda Ervin, floor leader and representative for the 17th district in the Onondaga County Legislature, said before the report was released on Thursday that any change would not take place immediately. Some of her fellow county legislators, she said, are not necessarily embracing the idea of consolidation in general.

Minchin Lewis, adjunct professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs who studies financial management and social programming in urban government, pointed out this is not the first time the city of Syracuse has gone through government overhaul.

The city and the county adopted their respective charters in 1960 that restructured the relationship between the city and the county and provided a tool to modernize governments, Lewis said. The Consensus recommendations, he added, are the next step in making the central New York region more economically competitive, which will improve its image, build a positive relationship with the state and attract national attention.

In addition to the troubling fiscal state, the Consensus report described the stagnant economic development that has plagued Syracuse for decades: low-level economic performance, high concentration of poverty and significant loss of population.

With regard to some residents’ fear in losing identity, Lewis said that neighborhood identities such as Eastwood didn’t change as a result of government modernization in the 1960 city charter adoption.

“We have to be open-minded and realize this is a historical time and there’s a historic opportunity,” Lewis said. “ … We can do this next set of modernizations without losing our identity and I think that’s going to be the main focal point.”

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