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Spitzer names panel to make local governments more efficient

Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's vow to reduce the size of local governments across New York State began Monday with the creation of a commission to study and offer recommendations on how to make localities more efficient.

Stan Lundine, a former lieutenant governor, mayor and congressman from Jamestown, who was appointed chairman of the new panel, said, "New York is uncompetitive with other states largely because of our property taxes, and the only way I know that we might be able to reduce our property tax burden without drastic cuts in services is to improve the efficiency of local governments."

The commission, which will report its recommendations by April 15 next year, will look at suggestions ranging from consolidation of local governments to sharing of services, such as police and fire protection.

With property taxes cited as a major cause of the exodus of residents from upstate, the concept of regionalism and government consolidation has been talked about for years as a possible solution to the rising expense of local government.

Spitzer said the composition of his panel -- current and former state and local government officials, as well as members from academia -- illustrates that all sides in the debate realize something has to be done about the duplication of services and multiple layers of local governments.

"This isn't a partisan issue. This isn't a matter of anything other than wise policy for the public," he said.

Lundine, who served as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, said the commission would likely consider county governments assuming a larger role of providing services now spread across multiple town and city layers.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a report in March showing that besides 4,200 local governments in the state -- cities, towns, villages and school districts -- there are 6,900 special government districts located within towns. Such entities cover the delivery of services -- such as electricity, water and fire protection -- in a specific area, such as a new subdivision.

Erie County leads the state with 939 special districts, and they accounted for 32 percent of the $440 million in tax revenues brought in by towns in 2004, according to the DiNapoli report.

Special districts are costly, adding hundreds of dollars a year to local property tax bills. Special tax districts in Niagara County, which has 92 such units, were responsible for 77 percent of property and assessment revenues taken in by its towns in 2004, the comptroller said.

The Spitzer effort to reduce the size of local governments faces a host of challenges. Besides labor unions that represent employees, party leaders across the state have relied on many of these largely hidden local government units for filling patronage jobs.

The panel, whose members include Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, D-Buffalo, will not have the power to make its recommendations binding.

Spitzer said he hopes to work cooperatively with local officials to implement the panel's recommendations, but he held out the possibility of using state laws and constitutional amendments if needed.

Spitzer also sent a letter Monday to local officials across the state asking them to identify at least one major merger or consolidation idea that is either under way or can be under way in the next year. He said the new commission then would choose some of the most innovative ideas submitted and provide the legal and logistical help to to make them happen.

Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, a longtime regionalism advocate, said he was encouraged that Spitzer wants to eliminate redundant layers of local governments. Giambra was co-chairman of a local government panel for former Gov. George E. Pataki, but Albany has been slow to embrace regionalism.

"What's going to make the difference here is you're going to need the bully pulpit of the governor and the political will of the governor and his administration to make this stuff happen," Giambra said. "It has to happen from the top down. It won't happen from the bottom up because there are too many jobs and [too much] patronage at the local level to make this happen," Giambra said.

The county leader said Spitzer should embrace his plan to close down the 27 emergency call centers scattered around various towns in the county. He said the 911 call centers cost local taxpayers $6 million a year.

Only Westchester has more 911 call centers, he said.

Giambra said it would not cost the state any money to shut down the call centers here, work he said could be picked up by the county at a fraction of the cost now being paid by localities.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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