“It’s almost like the movie Network,” declares Yonkers City Councilwoman Joan Gronowski. “‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.’” Gronowski is talking about the same “it” that, for the last couple of centuries, has been making frustrated reformers like her dump both literal and metaphorical tea into the harbor of American politics. She is talking about taxes. And, in Westchester, she is not alone.
Reeling from the tanking economy and tax increases of close to 4 percent throughout the county, many of Westchester’s nearly one million residents are growing angry with the waste they perceive in many municipal governments. Gronowski, a Democrat, had just been elected when the county’s 2008 tax raise came in her home city to 24 percent over the previous year’s increase. “People are just fed up,” she declares.
So fed up that some believe popular County Executive Andy Spano’s job could be on the line. For some, a new executive in the county government would be welcome (the current one, they point out, earns $160,760 per year). Others, like Gronowski, would find any county executive disappointing: they rally around an informal, self-appointed citizens’ committee (co-headed by Gronowski and fellow Democrat Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner), whose sole purpose is to abolish the county government (although only the state legislature has the power to do so). For the hundreds of citizens that the committee claims form its e-mail list and membership, no transfer of power would be an adequate rebuke to Westchester’s excesses unless that power were transferred to the last executive to serve before the dissolution of the 327-year-old, 6,173 (full-time)-employee-laden government of the County of Westchester. “Something’s going to have to change,” Feiner says. “Otherwise, only the very rich and the very poor are going to live here.”
This is the crux of the argument for abolishment: taxes are so high for most brackets that the middle class takes a serious blow living here, and the services that residents get from the county have created unnecessary redundancies in bureaucracy that only drive up taxes more. According to Feiner and his associates, the best level of government to slash if you want to lower taxes and curtail inefficiencies without eliminating services is…the county government.
“We should be able to give people more value for the dollar,” Feiner says, who opines that abolishment could create a 5- to 10-percent decrease in taxes—without decreasing services. Dennis Robertson, 2007 Yonkers mayoral candidate, thinks the savings could be the full 10 percent, at least for his home city.
Indeed, New Yorkers do pay some of the highest taxes in the nation. The state’s 7.8 percent local tax rate is second only to the 13.4 percent rate of Washington, DC, but the latter, of course, does not levy state taxes. In many recent years, Westchester had property taxes that were among the two or three highest in the country and, this year, the county reclaimed the No. 1 position with an $8,422 median real estate tax bill—the highest anywhere. Westchester, which has been vociferously criticized (especially by Journal News columnist Phil Reisman) for the excess and ethics of its spending, has a $1.7 billion budget. In comparison, Norfolk County in Massachusetts, which has a population of 600,000, has a budget of $20 million. However, Norfolk performs very few functions; indeed, almost none of the services, such as funding Medicaid and paying employees’ post-employment benefits that are mandated by law for Westchester to take care of. In fact, 70 to 80 percent of Westchester functions are state or federally mandated. So, those who want to abolish the county ask, why have a government if it only takes orders from higher levels of government? And, besides, they say many functions—the Department of Public Safety has 264 officers and the 10-year-old Human Rights Commission has a $700,000 budget—are duplications of departments on other levels of government. What a waste, they argue, and point to the government set-up next door, in Connecticut and, to some extent, Massachusetts, for proof of how well government can work without a “middleman.” In 1960, Connecticut dissolved its eight counties. (In Massachusetts in the 1990s, the state voted to allow counties to determine their own structures. Six of Massachusetts 14 counties abolished themselves, and another three decided to curtail their duties to various degrees.) And, in 2002, Westchester and all of the smaller municipalities within it (many of us in Westchester live in at least a village and a town that also levy taxes, mostly for school budgets) took in almost $2.9 billion in tax revenue. Seven of the eight counties in Connecticut (which still exist as geographical entities) collected less than $800 million. (The eighth county, Fairfield, contains Greenwich, where the median household income was almost $123,000 in 2007, while the median household income in Westchester, whose county government alone collected $1.7 billion in taxes, was less than $62,000). Connecticut’s local tax rate is 4.4 percent, compared to Westchester’s rate, which can be as high as 6.85 percent.
And Connecticut, county government opponents point out, is able to provide the same services despite the lower tax bills. For instance, the rate in most Connecticut counties of Medicare enrollment is similar to that in Westchester, yet New Yorkers overall still paid local taxes at a rate 3.4 percent higher than those in Connecticut. Connecticut, which gets many of its services—including Medicare and Medicaid—from its state government, hasn’t traded lower local taxes for higher state taxes either: it pays a 6.8-
percent state tax rate, one identical to that of New York.
“You in Westchester don’t just have county government and local government,” says Stamford, Connecticut, Mayor Dannel Malloy. “You have local government and local government and local government and local government. At one point, you could live in Westchester and have sixteen different taxing entities represented on your tax bill, from fire departments with concurrent jurisdiction, to educational systems with concurrent jurisdiction. It doesn’t sound terribly efficient.” According to the committee, Connecticut, with no counties, is able to avoid this redundancy and thus save money.
Plus, in Connecticut, the elimination of counties went quite smoothly. In her 1966 County Government in Connecticut: Its History and Demise, Professor Rosaline Levenson (then of the University of Connecticut), noted that “on the day that the counties ended their near 300-year existence, it is doubtful if many persons…were aware of the occasion.” It’s probably no surprise. At the time of their abolishment, Connecticut counties had only one major responsibility—the sheriff’s office. They didn’t even have their own independent legislative or judicial branches, and the few, minimal county functions all passed quietly to the state. When the federal government added social services like Medicare and Medicaid to some counties’ mandates in the mid ’60s, these responsibilities simply went to Connecticut’s state government. The situation was similar for Massachusetts counties that dissolved in the late ‘90s: almost all functions passed to the state. The people there still elect sheriffs to run county jails, but their employees are state employees, and, even though residents still elect a Register of Deeds, the Registry of Deeds for abolished counties falls under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
So no county government saves taxpayers money? Not so fast. Even though New York collects five times the amount of state taxes that Connecticut does, Connecticut has only one-seventh the number of people. Its state tax rate comes out the same because of the difference between their median incomes and those of Westchesterites, but Connecticut residents actually are paying more on average for state taxes. As for the benefits of abolishment, Levenson cites a partial savings of about $3 million in 1958, or a break of less than $10 per person by today’s standards. Furthermore, it’s not clear that any perceived difference is due to Connecticut’s lack of counties: Massachusetts, which has some counties operating and some not, generally has lower taxes than either state.
“I suppose we threw the baby out with the bath water,” says Mayor Malloy of Connecticut’s abolishing its counties. Malloy, who also teaches local government as an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut’s Stamford campus, calls the lack of counties in his state “a weakness.”
Still, committee members point to Connecticut only to show that abolishing county government is possible. Their concern is Westchester and what they think will happen to it if the county government persists. The relevance of the Connecticut model notwithstanding, proponents of abolishment are vehement that Westchester still has to address huge problems. Additionally, they stress that Connecticut is just a model and seem sure that Westchester can avoid the pitfalls of other states’ plans.
Yet others don’t agree. In April 2008, the New York State Commission on Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness submitted its report on 21st-century local government, which recommended that Westchester provide more services “on the countywide or regional basis, which will both save money and provide better service.” The report also recommended, as many other reports have, that municipalities should “centralize certain services on the county level” and “encourage regional solutions, cooperative services and consolidation.”
In some ways, Westchester definitely does that. For instance, any municipality that wants to do so may send its police or firefighters to the county’s training facility free of charge. The county also runs a health department that monitors numerous area emergency rooms to try to detect trends and regional health threats, and several years ago, the county purchased a helicopter (at the request of the various local police chiefs) that now aids all municipalities in investigations, rescue, and crime prevention. This is to say nothing of a long list of functions including the DA’s office, the department of corrections, the medical examiner, and the clerk that are all a part of a county’s standard responsibilities.
“Theoretically, if everyone wants to get together with their neighbors and have a bomb squad, you could do it,” says County Executive Spano, “but how inefficient is that? It’d be chaotic. It just doesn’t work.”
To Spano, this chaos would be especially prevalent in smaller communities, which wouldn’t be able to pick up some of the county’s functions the way bigger cities might. For him, anybody who suggests otherwise is misinformed (or looking for a flashy political issue), particularly when it comes to assertions that the state government could or would take over responsibilities that are too big for local municipalities.
“The state does not have the money,” says Spano’s chief adviser, Susan Tolchin. “They keep passing things down to the counties and the localities.” The state’s unwillingness (or inability) to perform certain services may be most evident in the fact that 70 to 80 percent of the county’s functions are mandated. In other words, the state government (or occasionally the federal government) decided that Westchester, instead of it, should perform certain functions, often social services like Medicaid and Medicare (for which the county must also provide half the funding) and those for seniors and children with special needs.
Besides, the county has almost 3,200 fewer people working for it today than it did in 1997 when Spano took over, and the county’s latest 3.89-percent tax increase is only slightly more than the 2.85-percent inflation rate. (A state adjustment to the county’s rate resulted in the 24-percent increase in Yonkers.) The county, which accounts for less than 20 percent homeowner’s bill, has even seen a number of years in this administration with steady tax rates.
As a result of this performance, some feel that the problem isn’t the county at all but the local governments. Matt Lifflander, a lawyer from Hastings who opposes abolishment and worked for Governor W. Averell Harriman’s administration in the late 1950s, argues that many local districts are expensive and inefficient, and that the county is actually easing their burden. “It’s obvious that the various services that the county makes available to the municipalities are saving money for the municipalities,” says Lifflander.
Spano, not surprisingly, agrees. “I never have said, ‘We’re a government’ to the municipalities. When they meet, I say, ‘We are a resource center for you.’”
Besides, Lifflander points out, people may not be conscious of it, but on some level they’re willing to pay a premium for the kind of community feeling that local institutions provide. “And I understand it,” he says. “It’s rather nice.”
Ben Brody is a resident of Tuckahoe who attends Yale University. He is the managing editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Yale Daily News and Yale Environment 360.