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Editorial: Cuomo wants to get voters involved in cutting the cost of local government

Persistence pays, and when it comes to the problem of local taxes, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is nothing if not persistent. Unable to significantly reduce the heavy property tax load that burdens New Yorkers, the governor this week unveiled a creative new effort to achieve his goals. It may not work but it’s well worth trying.

The proposal is to require the state’s county executives or county managers to summon officials from all their municipalities to devise ways to share government services as a way to cut expenses.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, county leaders would be required to submit the plan to county legislators by Aug. 1. Lawmakers would have 45 days to act; if they do nothing, the plan would be presented to voters in a November referendum. If the plan is rejected, the process would be repeated next year.

Cuomo has tried more than once in the past to restrain or reduce property taxes, successfully implementing a property tax cap. He previously sought to encourage local governments to consolidate by linking successful efforts to a state tax credit. Nothing happened.

The problem is one of both leadership and public resistance. Municipal leaders are typically loathe to give up their influence and status, but they have also been supported by local residents who interpret consolidation plans as a loss of identity, even if that identity comes at the cost of duplicated services that drive up taxes.

It’s a nutty system on its face. New York piles one government agency atop another and all are focused as much on self-preservation as they are on serving their constituents. It needs to change.

In his newest effort, Cuomo isn’t looking for consolidations, but shared services that can reduce taxpayer costs. Why can’t contiguous governments share purchasing functions, for example? Why do they need separate assessor’s offices? These kinds of questions are never answered. Some communities do share some services. Under Cuomo’s proposal, it could become commonplace.

County leaders are already objecting, but the plan vests ultimate authority with voters. That’s as it should be, and is part of Cuomo’s calculus. “Unless citizens get into the game, it’s not going to happen,” he said at one of this week’s State of the State speeches.

It’s not a perfect plan by any means. For one, it excludes school districts, whose property tax bite is far and away the deepest of any government entity. That may be appropriate, but it limits the effectiveness of the approach.

And, as county governments quickly noted, it pays no mind to the unfunded state mandates that fall like acid rain on local governments. It was a common complaint when Joel Giambra was Erie County executive. He protested loudly that state-mandated Medicaid costs gobbled up the entire county property tax levy, leaving sales taxes to cover most other costs. The deputy director at the New York State Association of Counties, Mark LaVigne, said this week that nine state-mandated programs consume more than 99 percent of county property taxes across the state.

It’s a valid point, but it’s also beside the point. Municipal governments should continue to press for mandate relief, but it’s a separate issue from whether they should be looking for ways to reduce costs by sharing services. For one thing, if they lowered other costs, the state mandates wouldn’t hurt quite so much.

They haven’t been willing to do that, for the most part. Cuomo’s plan could change that lethargic dynamic. State legislators should approach this in a positive manner, keeping in mind that those overtaxed constituents of local government officeholders are their constituents, too.

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