The Democratic View: Government all the way down

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It has always been funny to me that the people least enamored of government are often the ones least likely to want to give up their tiny municipalities—to merge school districts or consolidate villages—or even to rid themselves of superfluous fire districts. New York State has a fairly alarming number of governmental subdivisions—over 4,000 bodies that can levy taxes. That’s a lot. Unlike in many states, the boundaries between those subdivisions overlap wildly, so that my house, for example, has a mailing address of Freeville despite being miles from the village with that name, and lies within the Dryden School District while being walking distance in one direction from the Ithaca School District in the Town of Caroline, and walking distance in another direction from the Ithaca School District in the Town of Dryden. My town alone contains bits of half a dozen school districts, which is, I’m sorry, crazy.


Locally, we all live in a county, which encompasses a city and several towns, some of which contain villages and hamlets. In the smaller municipalities, there might be fire districts or water districts or both.


Despite this obvious overabundance of governments, all of them taxing bodies, people are loath to make the slightest concession if it means losing their autonomy and identity. Even when consolidating school districts means clear savings plus benefits to students, which voters support in theory, those same voters tend to reject the idea when it appears on a ballot. Thirty school districts explored consolidation between 2010 and 2014; none managed to go through with it. In Steuben and Allegany Counties, little Arkport Central School and Canaseraga Central School approved a straw poll merger in October of 2018, only to see it fail by 92 Canaseragan votes in the final November referendum.


Villages occasionally dissolve and are subsumed by towns. It happened to the village of Van Etten last year. That dissolution was nearly stopped, but the stoppage fell four votes short. Yet even though village taxes are often distressingly high on top of town and county taxes, dissolving of villages is rare.


There are many reasons for this, all of which can probably be classified under the rubric “History.” If you live in a village, you like your village. You like having a mayor and village trustees whom you see at the library and post office. If you live in a school district, you like your school. You like the school colors and the team mascot (often the biggest obstacles when the conversation turns to consolidation). You hate paying school taxes, but not enough to vote to make the system more efficient.


So here we are, a state with 62 counties, 932 towns, 733 school districts, and who knows how many villages. Luckily, our local villages are not like poor Saranac Lake Village, which spans three different towns and two counties. Here, the town of Dryden contains the Villages of Freeville and Dryden. The town of Groton contains the Village of Groton. The town of Ithaca contains the Village of Cayuga Heights. The town of Lansing contains the Village of Lansing. The town of Ulysses contains the Village of Trumansburg. Of those villages, all but Lansing will hold elections Tuesday, March 19.


Cayuga Heights and Freeville hold nonpartisan elections. The other villages have the usual multi-line ballots. The Democrats are running a full slate in Dryden, with Mike Murphy vying for a full term as mayor, accompanied by Jason “Lou” Dickinson and Clay Converse as trustee candidates. All three are running on two lines, the Democratic line, and the Protecting Dryden line.


In Trumansburg, Keith Hannon is running on the Democratic line for a full term on the village board. According to the sample ballot I’ve seen, he is unopposed. In Groton, the Republicans are unopposed. (Another problem with tiny municipalities is that there are rarely large numbers of people eager to run for office. On the other hand, the voting population is small enough that a good write-in candidate can win.)


There is only one polling place for each village election—at Kendal for Cayuga Heights and at each respective village hall for Dryden, Groton, and Trumansburg. Polls are open from noon to 9 on March 19. Only registered voters who live within the village boundaries may vote.


These village elections are surprisingly important in terms of being able to influence your immediate quality of life and expenditure of tax dollars, and they are often decided by just a handful of votes. Read about the candidates in your local weeklies, and please make a plan to vote.


Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee. See the committee website at tcdemocrats.org. The Republican View will be printed in the final edition of Tompkins Weekly each month.

Democratic View

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