The Threat of Consolidation Undermined the Shared Services Proposal

On Monday September 11, Onondaga County held the final public hearing on its shared services plan. After that hearing, the County amended the plan. The new draft includes only one item of cooperation between Onondaga County and the City of Syracuse–a joint application for Medical Insurance for employees of the County, the City, and the City School District.

This is a pretty shallow agreement coming on the heels of two years of public debate about the possibility of merging City and County government. Beginning in 2014, the Consensus Commission began its work on a proposal for government consolidation in Onondaga County. In 2015 the Central New York Regional Economic Council included such a merger in its successful application to the Upstate Revitalization Initiative. in February of this year, Consensus released its final report recommending more than forty different ways that local governments could save money by sharing services. The most explosive recommendation was to dissolve the City of Syracuse, transfer its powers and assets to the County, and maintain the old city line as the boundaries of “debt district” responsible for payments to the Syracuse City School District’s pension fund.

Ask about the wide gap between those ambitious proposals and the small ideas that made it into the plan’s final draft, and Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney will point out that this shared services proposal is distinct from the efforts of the Consensus Commission and the Regional Economic Council. Every County in New York State was required to write a shared services proposal as a result of legislation passed along with this year’s state budget. A City-County merger can still occur separately through a local referendum.

It’s telling, though, that even the Post-Standard and citizen groups like Uplift Syracuse were confused about the relationship between shared services and consolidation. The community has been reading similar reports on both types of proposals for years now–lists of government services that could be made more efficient if administered at a higher level accompanied by estimates of potential savings. The same politicians offered the same rationales for both consolidation and sharing services.

The people pushing shared services in Onondaga County–namely County Executive Mahoney and New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo–missed a chance to show that their ideas could work. They muddled their message so badly that the modest shared services plan became identified with the politically toxic proposals for consolidation, and that doomed the discussion from the start.

That’s too bad, because the City and the County should work together on certain things. Economic development is one example. That’s something that City leaders could get behind, but not when they have to reassure their voters that suburban politicians aren’t trying to undermine City communities.

The shared services debacle should be a lesson to the half dozen people running for the mayor’s office. There’s a narrative in this election that Syracuse just needs someone nicer–that a lot of the City’s problems stem from Mayor Stephanie Miner’s bad relationship with the County Executive and with the Governor. That narrative assumes that all the responsibility for those relationships rests with Mayor Miner–it doesn’t. All three politicians answer to their own constituencies, and too often the County Executive and the Governor have ignored the Mayor’s position when pushing some policy or proposal. Unless the next mayor plans to just roll over, he or she is going to have public disagreements with both the County Executive and the Governor.