If we could redraw the map, we would never create the patchwork quilt of local governments we have now. That’s a familiar refrain among people who observe local government—and not just in NYS. But the opportunity for a complete overhaul of the current – inefficient – system in many states rarely comes along. Usually, the most that can be done is to “rearrange the furniture”.
The City and Town of Batavia, NY are an exception. They are two communities reinventing themselves. The endeavor began in 2008 when Town and City leaders launched an exploration of service sharing options. From combining highway operations to merging the police department with the County Sheriff, the municipalities looked at feasible courses of action to save money. By the end of the study, the idea of merging into one new city had captured their imaginations. Becoming one city presented the most opportunities to streamline the local governments, cut costs, enhance services and improve the communities’ image in the region.
In 2010, Town and City elected leaders approved a joint resolution authorizing a charter task force to design a new City of Batavia. Their task will include drafting plans for tiered tax zones that allow certain services of the former city to not impact the former town and visa-versa. This minimizes cost shifts alleviating tax payer concerns that they will end up paying for services they don’t want or use. The task force will assess whether the new city needs a mayor (the city currently does not) or whether, as the Model City Charter suggests, a city manager form makes a more effective government. Current election wards in the city could be redrawn or the task force could decide that all members of the new city council should be elected at large. At stake are historic boundaries and representation of certain constituencies that have a strong voter presence in the community.
The creation of a new city charter allows the task force to be creative as it contemplates the future. The task force is being presented a blank slate and is being asked to rethink how local government should work. This is rare in CGR’s experience. Rather than opt for a momentous shift from the status quo, communities are often compelled to reorganize what is already in place. With limited options, the momentum that preceded the project is lost and little is ever accomplished.
Innovation does have its limits. The blank slate analogy breaks down a little when voter preferences are brought into play. The task force must weigh how much change the community will accept. Ultimately, the citizens of the Town and City of Batavia will have to vote on this historic new charter. Voter preference is notoriously hard to predict. Will people be energized by the innovative thinking or will fear of change stop the momentum. Will the vision for a new Batavia be more compelling than the status quo?
Innovation is meeting opportunity in this historic redesign of two communities. Stay tuned to find out if the City and Town of Batavia become the first to merge as a new city in NYS.
You can follow the Batavia city charter development process at www.cgr.org/onebataviacharter . You can read about the consolidation plan developed in 2008/09 by going to the website www.cgr.org/bataviaconsolidationplan.