Property Rights Foundation of America®

From "Worth Commenting," New York Property Rights Clearinghouse, Winter 2007, Vol 11, No. 1

"You're Asking for It"

By Carol W. LaGrasse

You don't forget a photo like this—my friend John Salvador, shoulders stooped, seeming to hurry away from the spot reserved for members of the public to address the town board, while Dan Stec, the Queensbury town supervisor, with his wide-open angry mouth dominating his determined face, pushed his broad body upward from his chair while he leaned forward, his forearm outstretched and index finger pointing toward John.

The photo on the front page of the Glens Falls Post-Star in November caught the exact moment when John had finished presenting his graph of the explosion of the county budget during recent years and had accidentally knocked over the microphone. An unusually well-educated man, John had first retired from his occupation as a petroleum engineer in Europe and the Mid-East, and later retired from his business owning and operating a destination resort on Lake George, but his well-thought civic-mindedness is not appreciated by the town board. In fact, they commonly react as though he is a thorn in their side.

It isn't unusual for town government to be disdainful to the public. Furthermore, officials cherish their power, especially their power to obstruct, and are often hostile to development. And, even more interestingly, it is common for town government to be willing to sign away the right of the people to govern locally, coinciding with an assumption of more power and receipt of more money by the officials.

For example, the State offers towns grants to accomplish full value assessment. If State Forest Preserve land is within its borders, a town may accept State assessments of its own lands. But, the proportion of State-owned land can be very high, even more than half the land in the town, and the State has a variable history of assessing its land, for years asserting very low assessments, resulting in many lawsuits. Since a town has the constitutional right to assess Forest Preserve land within the town, a town that accepts State valuations may not be protecting the local taxpayers' interests.

By way of another example, compare the way that two towns in New York State responded to the declaration of the electorate that they wanted to retain the power to vote for the local assessors. Last year, the people in Thurman, which is in Warren County just north of Stony Creek where I reside, were faced with the decision of the town board to change from a three-person elected board of assessors, the classical assessing structure, to a single appointed assessor, where the voters would no longer have the power to elect their assessors. This local law was subject to a referendum on Election Day. Rejecting the new structure, the people of Thurman voted 150 to 137 to keep the elected assessors, which settled the matter.

In the town of Gardiner in Ulster County a similar measure appeared on the ballot in November 2005, and the townspeople voted 673 to 592 to keep the elected board of assessors. However, not long after the vote, the long-term elected assessor, who served as chair of the board, resigned, going into retirement, to the surprise of the electorate. Even before her retirement, the board of assessors was incomplete. In January 2006 the town board appointed an interim assessor to take her place. Normally, this office would have been subject to election in November 2006. However, the town board appointed the new assessor as sole appointed assessor on May 9, 2006.

At the time, there was no provision in state statute for a town to go from elected assessors to sole appointed assessor without a referendum. On August 16, 2006, Governor George E. Pataki, signed a bill into law allowing a town board to choose to skip the referendum process when changing to a single appointed assessor. That bill had been passed by both houses of the legislature in June. However, even if the Gardiner town board had waited until after August 16 to change to a single appointed assessor, the new law provided that the existing assessors would have held office until the last day of the year.

It was a mystery to the Gardiner citizens how they had lost the long-standing power to vote when the town board wanted to eliminate the citizens' right to elect their assessors. Actually, at that point in May 2006, they had not lost their right to vote.

But the provision was slipped quietly into state law that year, and the long-standing right to vote if a town went from an elected board of assessors to a single assessor metamorphosed into one of three choices — a mandatory referendum, a referendum in response to a local voters' petition (known as "permissive referendum"), or no referendum at all.

Another state law change that took place over a decade ago was to allow consolidated assessing units under an unelected board of directors appointed by the town boards that set up the district.

These instances involving the local elected assessor office illustrate the continuing effort to reduce the direct power of the voters, to eliminate local offices and the power of local office holders, to move services to a higher level of government, and to regionalize government. Typical of this movement was that during 2005, legislation was introduced to enable town highway departments to merge and to reduce costs by combining other local government functions under "intermunicipal cooperation." (This legislation is not necessary to accomplish its ostensible purpose, considering that cooperation among neighboring small towns has been routinely done for years through shared equipment contracts, for example for large paving jobs.) Legislation to reduce the direct power of local townspeople and muddy town boundaries is tied to various state incentives.

New York State's 932 local towns are often cited by advocates of regional and metropolitan area government as an unjustified conglomeration of fragmented sources of jurisdiction, obstructing progress and preoccupied with preserving their own power. It is rare to hear cogent arguments from town and village government that, because they are closest to the people and the affairs they govern, they are the most cost-effective and responsive, over the hubbub of well-funded lobbyists for what is alleged to be more desirable, efficient organization in this modern age.

At a conference at the Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in March 2005, Clifford Sondock, president of the Land Use Institute, a free-market group of developers and others on Long Island who are frustrated with the obstructionist attitude of local municipalities, called for "creative destruction of Long Island's Balkanization, accomplished by reducing the number of zoning jurisdictions from 110 towns, villages and cities to only four…jurisdictions: Suffolk County and Nassau County and the two cities, Long Beach and Glen Cove."

Often local towns and villages indeed provide an unrestrained venue for NIMBY groups formed expressly to obstruct development of essential industry, as well as homes accessible to minorities and people of modest income. Thus, in the town and village of Corinth in northern New York, where the now-vacant industrial site of the International Paper Company could provide an opportunity for jobs and a return to economic vitality for that Hudson River vicinity, a local organization named Citizens for Safe and Responsible Industry with the slogan "Pray for Corinth" has succeeded for over two years in delaying approval of development of the site for a plastics factory and other uses by the Philmet Corporation, a firm headed by investors from New York City. An undercurrent of Green thinking that deems everything productive to be polluting and offensive hangs over what should instead be objective discourse.

Returning to the Town of Queensbury's treatment of my civic-minded friend John Salvador, one wonders how long towns and villages can mistreat their own citizens, and irrationally obstruct investors and developers, before the state Green machine, the regional planners, and commercial interests that perceive an advantage by dealing with a higher regulatory jurisdiction get together with the legislature for the next stage of incentives and statutory restructuring of local government.

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© 2007 Carol W. LaGrasse
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