Is Syracuse Necessary?

Some want to save the fiscally challenged city in New York by effectively abolishing it.
May 2017
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Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

What would happen to the state of New York if Syracuse ceased to exist? Maybe not a lot. Life would go on pretty much as before. Unless, of course, you were a resident of Syracuse. In that case, you might have cause to wonder what would justify folding up the state’s fifth-largest city after a productive life of 192 years.

All right, I’m exaggerating. Syracuse isn’t going to be literally wiped off the map. The struggling city will continue to exist as a geographic entity, 26.6 square miles of territory with fixed boundaries and roughly 150,000 people inside them. But if the plans of a blue ribbon commission become law, Syracuse wouldn’t be much more than that.

After three years of work and testimony from hundreds of residents, the 19-member Commission on Local Government Modernization, created by a coalition of civic leaders and financed in part by the state legislature, issued its final report early this year. It made a series of recommendations that weren’t entirely surprising but still managed to be rather startling in their language, scope and aura of solemnity.

Under the plan, the city would be absorbed by surrounding Onondaga County. Syracuse would have no mayor, no police force and no economic development agency. Its city council would be merged into a 33-member county legislature, only five of whose districts would lie entirely within the city, which currently holds about a third of the county’s population.

Few would dispute that the city has some serious problems. It is home to 18,000 fewer working residents than in 1990; its job growth since then has been less than half the national average. “The city of Syracuse is worse today than it was a decade ago,” commission co-chairman Neil Murphy said to me recently. “And it’s not going to get better.“

The Onondaga County executive, Joanie Mahoney, has been warning for the past six years that the city is financially unsound. She thinks that the commission’s plan may be the only viable option for dealing with a deteriorating situation. “If you don’t like this plan,” she asks, “what is your plan? The clock is ticking. ‘No’ is not an option.”

And viewed in the abstract, consolidation would seem to make sense. As in most troubled metro areas, the surrounding county is healthier than the city. A consolidated Onondaga County would at least be within reach of fiscal stability. It might even look more attractive to corporations and other significant job creators. But urban life isn’t lived in the abstract. The closer one looks at the plan, the more problematic it begins to appear.

No longer a city in its historic sense, Syracuse would become a “debt district.” Yes, those are the words the commission report uses. Residents of the evaporating metropolis would continue to be responsible for the crippling public pension debts that have threatened its solvency for years. There would still be a Syracuse school system, and this too would have to be paid for by those living inside the urban boundary. The county would not be asked to bail out school or pension debts.

Nor would Onondaga County’s other 19 towns and 15 villages, some of them quite prosperous, be much help in dealing with Syracuse’s problems. That’s because they wouldn’t even be part of the consolidation. The villages and towns could vote to join up later, and this is what the plan’s drafters are hoping for. “We’re pretty confident,” says Murphy, “that a lot of them will opt in.” Others are not so sure.

Then there’s the pesky question of how much money would actually be saved by folding the city into the county. The commission says the amount could be between $8 million and $22 million a year -- a range so large as to cast some doubt on how confident the drafters were in their findings.

In fact, the commission seems unsure about whether the consolidation plan is meant to be a money-saver at all. On page 70 of its report, it declares that “these recommendations are not intended to generate material savings. They are not about savings at all.” Two pages later, the document announces that “there are cost savings to achieve … significant annual savings by leveraging common services and scale.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise if people are a little bit confused.

It’s equally unclear where the political support for a move this drastic could come from. The existing city government, needless to say, isn’t pleased with it. The week the report was issued, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner charged that it “abolishes the city, strips the city of its assets and saddles city residents with enormous financial obstacles without any means to raise revenue to satisfy them.” She called it “a plan for the worst form of corporate looting.” None of her colleagues in city government chose to challenge her.

So the political support would have to come from outside the city, from the suburban and rural communities and the county legislators who represent them. But that isn’t happening either. The Republican majority in the county legislature promptly announced that it had no plans to vote on the consolidation proposal anytime in 2017. The legislator who chairs the consolidation subcommittee told a reporter that “I’m unaware of any official at the city level, the town level, the village level that supports this.” Some of these local officials are suspicious that, even though the plan formally excuses them from having to pay off any of the city’s debt, or even joining the merged government, they will somehow be dragged into a Syracuse bailout somewhere down the road.

So the whole idea is dead, right? Well, not totally. The state could revive it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is a proponent of local government mergers and an ally of the Onondaga county executive, is asking the state legislature to approve a bill that would require county officials to propose specific consolidation and service-sharing measures for their jurisdictions. If this passes, Mahoney could put a consolidation referendum on local ballots without having to ask for support from any other elected officials. Of course, such a referendum would still need majority support from the voters inside and outside the city. And it’s doubtful that Mahoney’s state mandate would allow her to propose anything as drastic as confining the city of Syracuse to oblivion. But some significant aspects of a merger -- such as combining the city and county parks departments -- could probably be achieved that way.

If the Syracuse consolidation plan doesn’t offer much of a blueprint on how to get a difficult job done, it does suggest some of the pitfalls that good-government crusaders can run into.

We actually know quite a bit about the politics of urban consolidation. For one thing, we know that the efforts to achieve it don’t succeed very often. Between 1902 and 2010, 105 consolidation measures were brought to voters in American cities and counties. Less than 20 percent of them were approved.

The losing campaigns nearly all had something in common. They told voters that local government was in dire straits, inefficient, duplicative and leaking resources, and that consolidation would bring new efficiencies and substantial savings of money. Overlapping police forces, parks departments and water systems could be combined in the interest of economy and sound management. This is the road down which the Syracuse reformers have chosen to travel.

The voters almost never buy it. They highly value their local-level public services and are alienated by prophecies of fiscal doom. They are suspicious of promises that consolidation will save money, and they have a right to be. Every study done on consolidation -- and there have been many of them -- has concluded that very little money actually is saved. By and large, the same services have to be provided that were provided under the old arrangement.

In fact, we don’t just know what fails when it comes to urban consolidation. We also have a pretty good idea of what succeeds. Nashville, Tenn., gave us some hints about this in the 1960s, and then Louisville, Ky., wrote the book on it in 2000.

Twice in the 1980s, Louisville’s good-government forces had produced city-county consolidation plans, making the usual arguments about fiscal difficulties and promising savings and efficiency by means such as merging local police departments. Both these plans were soundly defeated.

The third time, in 2003, Mayor Jerry Abramson decided that these fights couldn’t be won on negatives. He organized a campaign based on the idea that Louisville wasn’t a failure but a great city that could become even greater. He kept repeating that if the city and county merged, the 65th largest city in America would move up to 23rd place. The new entity would be a source of pride to everyone who lived there. Louisville wouldn’t be disappearing into the county; it would become the flagship of a strengthened metropolitan area.

The voters of Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County bought that argument, by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. The morning after it passed, banners went up: “Welcome to Louisville, America’s Newest Top 25 city.”

I’m not dismissing the differences between Louisville and Syracuse. The fiscal situation does seem to be worse in upstate New York now than it was in Louisville 17 years ago. The civic pride that Abramson kindled wouldn’t be easy to duplicate in a Rust Belt industrial city that has endured several decades of bad news. Still, the Syracuse commission seems to have missed something that was out there for them to notice: It’s never going to be easy to sell a repair job. The things that sell are vision and hope.