Even the most ardent creationist would be hard-pressed to argue that the thousands of units of local government that overlap their way across New York State were, as a whole, intelligently designed. Clearly, the cities and villages, school districts and cemetery boards, libraries and emergency call centers -- along with their governing boards, administrative staffs and separate property tax levies -- evolved over time, springing up to fill a perceived need.
They all seemed like a good idea at the time. Maybe a lot of them still are. That's what Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer's new Local Government Efficiency and Competitiveness is supposed to determine.
That body is supposed to take just one year to figure out whether and how many of the various levels of local government could be consolidated, contracted or even dissolved. In theory, the result should be better government that provides more services and/or costs the taxpayers less. That will not only help the people who live here now, but encourage more people to move and set up businesses here.
That's a tall order. And the report is going to have to be thorough, direct and include some easy-to-understand proposals for the Legislature to enact. Otherwise, it stands to be just another in a series of calls for regionalization and consolidation of government services.
In theory, all those local units of government and service providers -- upwards of 10,000 of them, depending on how you count -- are arms of the state, existing at the pleasure of the state. In practice, many of them have built up a loyal constituency, or at least an entrenched slate of officials and employees, who would raise holy heck if the governor and/or the Legislature came along and ordered them to engage in a series of hostile takeovers of one another.
Thus the commission, which will be chaired by former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine and include Buffalo-area appointees -- Assemblyman Sam Hoyt and Kathryn Foster, a Ph.D. researcher at the University at Buffalo whose expertise is the inner workings of all kinds of governments, from the Iroquois Confederacy to the Internet.
As Foster points out, it is too glib to say that consolidation would be easy, or that it would even save all that much money, at least during what could be a long and painful transition. Bigger is not always better. Small is not always beautiful.
But at least New Yorkers should be served by the size, number and type of governments that they have, themselves and through their elected representatives, chosen, not by a self-replicating swarm of agencies that may or may not serve the purpose for which they were, however intelligently, designed.