The two percent property tax cap mandated by New York State three years ago will encourage consolidation concepts advocated by good-government groups but resisted on the local level. “It’s a sort of starve-the-beast mentality that could force people into decisions they might not have considered otherwise,” assemblyman Kevin Cahill said.
In local education, the combination of rising built-in contractual obligations, healthcare commitments, declining student enrollment and eroding property values is leading to wholesale closing of elementary schools and massive staff reductions. But so far there has been only isolated talk of consolidation of school districts.
Ulster County has eight school districts with about 22,000 students, according to Ulster BOCES (the Board of Cooperative Educational Services). Kingston’s 7000 students comprise almost a third.
“Regionalism as a concept is going to be getting more airtime,” predicted BOCES superintendent Charles Khoury. He echoed Cahill’s view that the tax cap would eventually drive debate in that direction. BOCES provides educational services to the various districts.
As outlined in preliminary discussions and based on models of county school districts in other parts of the country, Ulster could have as few as four regional high schools, with current school districts retaining administration through the eighth grade. There would, of course, be considerable initial capital construction costs and ongoing transportation issues in such an organizational change. The state has been on record as being willing to support these efforts toward consolidation.
Gerald Benjamin, a professor at SUNY New Paltz and author of a widely respected book on regionalism some 20 years ago, said that localities will not easily give up autonomy. “What often might make sense on one level can mean something entirely different on another,” he said. “Take regional development in the seven-county area the state has designated. It might be more feasible to put five projects in, say, Dutchess County, but that won’t fly.”
It sometimes does fly. The recent state allocations to each of the ten statewide regional economic development regions have been of a similar magnitude irrespective of their population. And within regions per-capita project funds allocated to some counties have been more numerous and larger than those allocated to other counties.
Landfills and jails
Clear definition of political boundaries is a factor in advancing regionalism. The Hudson Valley doesn’t boast that kind of clarity. Each of the various state departments has its own administrative clustering of counties within a region.
Intermunicipal agreements, such as the one between Dutchess and Ulster counties to swap “conflict attorneys,” are sometimes a more common mechanism for sharing services and reducing costs than groups of counties setting up a regional structure. But there are examples of multi-county sharing for such things as transportation programs and housing studies. Efforts to reach county executives in Ulster and Dutchess for their views on regionalism were unsuccessful.
The SUNY-based regional think tank Benjamin heads in New Paltz called the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) has identified several areas where a regional approach could work — regional jails and regional landfills being but two sectors. Ulster County planning director Dennis Doyle noted that every county in the region exports its garbage.
Congressman Chris Gibson mentioned the conflict involved in getting natural competitors to cooperate for the greater good. They don’t cooperate in Washington. In the end, “the refusal to resolve issues reinforces the status quo,” he said.
The region has rarely spoken with one voice on the state legislative level. Though dozens of state legislators represent the seven counties of the Mid-Hudson regional area, they don’t aggregate their clout the way politicos clustered around central cities do. By and large, they tend to limit their activities to state issues in Albany and those arising in their respective districts. This absence of common approach speaks to a peculiar parochialism.
Cahill said he’d like to reorient the office he has held for almost 20 years toward a more regional approach. Shortly after the first of the year, he convened a luncheon with regional leaders in education, business, healthcare and finance to explore common issues and approaches.
Mid-Hudson Pattern for Progress, the regional planning and policy entity, has been preaching regionalism for decades. Repeated efforts to connect to a spokesperson there were unsuccessful.
Former congressman Maurice Hinchey of Saugerties helped establish a federal designation of the Hudson Valley heritage region almost two decades ago. Other than some signage and a web site, its impact after 18 years has been limited. The Hudson Valley Greenway, another Hinchey initiative in cooperation with Steve Saland, has been successful in promoting environmental responsibility through grants and advocacy.
One stop shopping
Defining a region is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. From the town level, the county represents a region. For county officials, clusters of adjacent counties seem the logical building blocks. Traditionally, the mid-Hudson has been centered in Dutchess, Orange and Ulster counties, sometimes buttressed by a few adjacent counties. The Catskills, anchored by Ulster, Greene, Sullivan and Delaware counties, often see themselves as a region. For purposes of marketing, Ulster has long advertised itself as the place where the Catskills and the Hudson meet.
The recently formed Mid-Hudson Regional Advisory Development Council approaches regionalism from what a spokesman called the ground level. “We’ve stressed very hard the public participation part of it,” council spokesman Jason Conwall. In theory, the council will act as a one-stop shopping center for the myriad of state programs available to localities, schools and business. “We’ve turned the process on its head from when Albany made the decisions,” the spokesman said.
In its goal to coordinate competition within a region, the council structure creates competition for limited state resources among regions.