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Change consolidation laws Attorney general rightly pushes plan that empowers local leaders, residents

One way to cut the cost of governing New York enough that people can still afford to live here would be to put a twist on the advice usually applied to child-rearing: It takes a village.

Or, in the case of government: Take my village, please. Or my town. Or my school district. Or any of the estimated 10,521 levels of local governments found in New York State.

That's the bold and intelligent advice of Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, who is out on the hustings promoting a plan to make it easier -- to make it even remotely possible -- to reorganize, merge or dissolve the thousands of local governments that we no longer need into more efficient instruments for providing the services we do need. Essentially, he wants new laws giving lower levels of government, and the people, the power to take consolidation steps they can't take now.

As Cuomo has been pointing out for several months now, a big part of the problem is that no one really knows how many local government units there are in the state. The counties, cities, towns, villages and school districts are obvious enough. But the many thousands of special districts, founded for purposes ranging from fire protection and trash collection to erecting street lights and cleaning up duck waste, are as uncounted as the grains of sand on a beach.

They may have all seemed like good ideas at the time, but they soon evolved into a cynical shell game. Shoving various public services off the books of towns and villages and into the laps of the myriad special districts allowed the mayors and supervisors to brag about how their budgets and payrolls were flat, while shifting the costs, and an uncountable number of patronage jobs, off to the districts.

The taxes necessary to keep all those districts going are, individually, small enough that many taxpayers don't even notice. But, in the aggregate, they amount to more than $100 billion a year.

No amount of wise, or even excessive, consolidation will reduce that number to zero. But getting a handle on the number and function of local governments and districts will doubtless lower the cost of providing those services or, at least, make more people aware of how much those activities really cost.

The measure that Cuomo is daring the Legislature to approve would not mandate a single change. But it would allow three breaches in the wall surrounding the status quo.

One would be the executive authority of each county -- Chris Collins here, for example -- who could order up a study and a consolidation plan for all local units, a plan that would be put to a vote of the people of that county. Another would be to allow the governing bodies of those units, on their own authority, to cooperate, merge or dissolve. A third would be a process whereby interested citizens could launch such a process by petition.

What's most important about Cuomo's idea is that it would create a single, understandable, constitutional statute that would govern the process, make it clear who can do what, and remove such unconstitutional provisions as those that now restrict the right to vote on some such questions to property owners.

No such bill has yet been drafted, much less submitted, to the Senate or Assembly. It's Cuomo's preference to till the soil first, as he is doing in visits to political activists and editorial boards across the state, daring lawmakers to side with him or against him.

"It could be a lot of fun," Cuomo said to us recently.

It could indeed. And very, very productive.

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