Do you think downsizing local governments saves money? Not so fast says UB’s Regional
Institute. The savings is expected
to be 1 percent or less, amounting to not much more than $.30 in monthly pocket
change, but the loss of services is much greater according to the study – contrary to the beliefs of regionalism and government downsizing activist, Kevin Gaughan.
The resulting document, Sizing up Local Legislatures, “is intended to help inform public debate
on an issue that has already moved two towns to downsize their boards and has
at least three others considering the same step.” Orchard Park, for instance, will vote
on cutting its board from five legislators to three on September 23rd.
“The size of local government boards is a matter of dollars
and cents, certainly, but also fundamentally affects the degree to which
elected leaders can respond to and represent citizen interests as well as
perform the basic functions of local government,” said Kathryn A. Foster, institute director and
co-author of the brief, a joint effort of the institute and University at
Buffalo Law School.
“In the end, it is a balance between extremes–the
unwieldiness of a board that is too large, and the concentration of power in a
board that is too small,” she said.
“Generally, larger boards are better suited where the
constituent base is diverse, the scope and complexity of municipal functions is
broad, legislator workload (including committee assignments) is high and
susceptibility to special interests or corruption is high,” added Gardner,
who is also chair of the institute’s Advisory Council.
Historically, across the nation and New York State, there are
usually between five and seven members on local government boards, a trend
partly shaped by the National Municipal League’s “Model City
Charter,” which has recommended this size range for the past 20 years.
For those communities in the midst of the local government
downsizing debate, the brief recommends constituents carefully consider their
goals, values and priorities for local government as they weigh the tradeoffs
“There is no right answer–the choice is up to each
community. However, if cost
savings are the primary driver behind downsizing local government, this
approach may prove ineffective,” according to Foster. She said that significant savings are “best
realized by eliminating or reducing local government services or finding
efficiencies in the delivery of those services.”