Along with a live stream online, a little more than 200 people gathered inside Syracuse University’s Maxwell School Wednesday night to witness a debate about government consolidation.
Before the debate began, folks were asked to vote on how they felt on the issue – 108 were for it and 98 voted against it. Nine people were undecided.
After the debate, the results flipped with 85 in favor and 127 against it. One person remained undecided.
Earlier in the day at a news conference in Syracuse, Governor Andrew Cuomo urged people to pay attention to the Consensus Commission report.
“Put everyone at one table, which has not happened, believe it or not, and say to all the local governments, we have to figure out how to work together and figure out how to save money by sharing services,” Cuomo said. “The service will be the same, but you can find savings among the governments.”
“The County Executive [Joanie Mahoney] will have meetings and they’re going to be open to the public,” Cuomo explained. “Local government officials can vote ‘yes,’ or they can vote ‘no,’ but they’re going to have to explain their vote in writing to the people of their district.”
Cuomo said the process will conclude by Oct. 15 of this year.
At Wednesday night’s debate, Consensus Commission member William Byrne spoke in favor of government consolidation.
“Last year the city of Syracuse withdrew $12 million from its rainy day fund just to make ends meet,” Byrne explained. “Today the balance stands at about $43 million. Without some painful measures, the city is on pace to be out of money by the end of 2020.”
Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner rebutting, “The largest expenses that we have are binding interest arbitration with our police department and our fire department. That’s a policy set by Albany. Syracuse as you said is not alone. The city of Albany is already bankrupt. They were bankrupt last year. They got a $12.5 million infusion of cash. They did it again this year.”
Onondaga County Comptroller Bob Antonacci agreeing with Miner, also against government consolidation, “Eventually we will have to turn our energy, collectively, on the beast that is Albany because that is where the costs are and that is where the rules must be changes for any local government, much less a newborn to be successful.”
The comptroller referred to the proposed merged municipality as “Onon-Cuse” or “Syra-Daga.” He said his offer to have his office audit the Consensus Commission’s reported savings was turned down.
Antonacci added that a merger of the Syracuse Police Department and the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, in itself, would raise costs. He says a closer look at union contracts for both agencies is needed before deciding on consolidation.
Consensus Co-Chair and former Congressman Jim Walsh openly praised Syracuse for being a “great city,” but one with many challenges.
“It is a wonderful city, but is it sustainable?” Walsh asked
The former congressman continued as he pointed out line items in the latest city budget.
“The city will spend $2 million dollars which gets you two miles of road repairs in a city with 411 miles of road,” Walsh said. “That’s a 200-year replacement cycle. The city was just forced to close recently the busiest fire barn in the city because they couldn’t afford the repairs.”
Mayor Miner rebutted later to say that although Fire Station 7 closed, response times didn’t change and services to city residents also stayed the same.
Miner stated more than once that dissolving Syracuse would “condemn” all of Central New York to poverty.
“Fifty percent of the jobs in Onondaga County are in the city of Syracuse. The top five employers, none of which pay property taxes by the way are located in the city of Syracuse,” Miner said. “Syracuse is the health care center, the recreational center, the cultural center, the economic center of Central New York.”
William Byrne repeatedly called the municipalities at hand “a community,” and emphasized the importance of effective and efficient government.
“We need to recognize that we are one community,” Byrne said. “When you’re out of town and someone asks you where you’re from, what do you say? You tell them you’re from Syracuse, not Minoa or Elbridge or Jamesville.”
Byrne says the Consensus Commission’s report has the “blue print for what the new system should look like.”
Former Congressman Walsh added that consolidation is about eliminating duplicated services and raising accountability.
“Last month we held town and village elections. The winners had 11 votes, 13 votes total…the winners,” Walsh said. “Tens of thousands of residents didn’t even vote from those jurisdictions. With our patchwork quilt of local governments, how many truly know which government is responsible for which service?”
The Consensus Commission’s report can be viewed here.