The phrase "change is difficult" is grossly understated when it comes to the emotions running through many Erie County villages these days. Residents are struggling with dissolution resolutions triggered by concern over duplicative services and too many levels of government.
At the end of the day, these debates are where they need to be -- at the town and village level, where such hard decisions must be made. These choices cannot be imposed. They must be accepted, by a majority of those most affected.
Although government downsizing advocate Kevin Gaughan has become a lightning rod for opposition as well as a champion for change, his contributions to a truly informed debate remain invaluable. He notes that New York contains 932 towns and 556 villages, and that Erie County residents pay the fifth highest local property taxes in the country, with possibly fewer than 900,000 taxpayers providing for 25 towns, 16 villages and three cities in addition to county government. That's far more layering of government than can be found in many other metro regions, including New York City, and it's reason enough to have this debate.
Yet, local villages are struggling with dissolution proposals and whether to join three villages in Cattaraugus County -- Randolph, East Randolph and Perrysburg -- and Seneca Falls in Seneca County in deciding to exist no longer. East Aurora is hoping the state will fund a $50,000 grant to study the issue and Williamsville and Lancaster may decide this year whether to stick around.
Gaughan, whose earlier work focused on the size of town boards, has now set his sights on dissolving village governments through persuasion -- but he is far from alone in that effort. An even more powerful tactic came from New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who won passage of a state Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act that makes it much easier for counties to initiate consolidations and helps citizens push such efforts by easing signature requirements for ballot-referendum petitions.
But making it easier for a weary electorate to do away with elected officials and, some fear, services, often promotes angry debate. The issue played a key role in the narrow defeat of one-term Mayor Clark W. Crook by Trustee Allan A. Kasprzak in East Aurora. Crook was an early vociferous supporter of dissolution whose calls became noticeably muted as the race heated up.
Letters and submitted op-ed columns on these Opinion pages also have carried staunch and sometimes angry defenses by some elected officials of the need for government-as-it-is, and arguing against fewer elected representatives, on the premise that shrinking the size of government neither saves taxpayers money nor improves services. As one Williamsville resident told this newspaper, even higher cost for the status quo is "worth every penny."
That's not always true. Duplication, turf protection and unnecessary layers of government are costly, especially in such a high-tax, population-losing region as this one. Every town-village combination will bring its own set of concerns and issues to the table, and the decision must rest with those who will, literally, live with it -- but the debate itself is a healthy one, and needed.