Wednesday Public Debate on the Consensus Report: What is the Right Thing to Do?
When: Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 from 7:00-8:30 p.m.
Where: Maxwell Auditorium in Maxwell Hall at Syracuse University
Address: Maxwell Hall, 151-161 College Pl, Syracuse, NY 13210
The public debate on a metropolitan form of government for Onondaga County will take place on April 12th, from 7:00-8:30 in the evening. The debate will take place in the Maxwell Auditorium on the SU Campus. ACTS members are encouraged to attend. The “Metropolitan form of government” under debate is a synonym for the recommendations proposed by the “Consensus Report,” a 112-page document which advocates for the consolidation of our county and city governments. This would mean a unified Onondaga County government of one elected official and a 33-person Legislature. The authors behind the report, known as the “Consensus Commission,” tout consolidation would save Onondaga County 33 million dollars per year. Others, like Mayor Stephanie Miner, warn that Consensus policies could “doom Syracuse to eternal poverty.” Vito Sciscioli, a longtime Syracuse civic leader, urged ACTS at the Leadership Council Meeting in March to prioritize the Consensus Report as a vital social justice topic.
The public debate, hosted by the SU Maxwell School, has been organized to maximize participation from the audience. Those in attendance may therefore question the issue before and after panelists have stated their evidence. After the final arguments of the panelists are heard, the audience will vote on the perceived merits of the Consensus Report. Arguments against the Consensus Report will be fielded by Mayor Stephanie Miner and Onondaga County Comptroller Bob Antonacci. Panelists supporting the Consensus Report, consisting of two Consensus Commission members, will state the necessity of the Report. The two Commission panelists are former Congressman Jim Walsh and Byrne Dairy Chairman William Byrne. The Consensus Report represents 3 years of work contributed by 19 volunteer-experts from across the community with feedback incorporated from 70 public meetings, collectively attended by 4,000 people.
County-city government consolidation is not a new phenomenon. In a book edited by Jared B. Carr and Richard C. Feiock, the various purposes of local government consolidation are chronicled according to shifting times and perspectives.
“Reformers of the Progressive Era thought consolidation fostered greater efficiency…urban scholars of the 1970’s saw it as a logical response to persistent crisis…and public officials today believe that consolidation is a viable option for local governments overburdened by regional responsibilities.”
The ambiguity of the “supposed” merits of local government consolidation suggests that ACTS must demonstrate a heightened vigilance when considering the same option for Onondaga County. Change for the sake of change without a full understanding of its outcomes and purposes, after all, is a recipe for regretful hindsight in our community. Yet, despite the uncertainty around government consolidation, change of some kind in Onondaga County is desperately needed if Syracuse is to prosper in the future.
The Consensus Commission called the Syracuse region a “sinking ship.” Job growth in the region lags at one-quarter of the national rate, while economic output is only half of the national benchmark. Syracuse is afflicted by some of our country’s worst concentrated poverty. The poverty is exacerbated by proportionately poor funding for schools and other services, especially when compared with smaller Onondaga County population centers. Additionally, suburban sprawl has burdened an increasingly impoverished Syracuse population with the costs of its services and programs. Tax revenues have been unable to compete with the sprawl as population growth across the county has stagnated. In short, our resources are stretched thin.
The Consensus Report insists that government consolidation is a solution for these severe problems. The new Countywide Government proposed by the Report, which would replace the current Onondaga County and City of Syracuse governments, would ultimately increase the number of representatives per number of constituents across the county. The Report also suggest combining services such as law enforcement, industrial development, and infrastructure to reduce redundancy and cut costs. However, ACTS believes that matters of cost are secondary to a government’s primary purpose of safeguarding the welfare of its people. So, does the Consensus Report have our approval?
Our verdict is tied intrinsically to the well-being of all people across Onondaga County, especially historically-persecuted minorities and the marginalized. Even as ACTS Leaders carefully read the 112-page report, we cannot pass a unified verdict until its effects on Syracuse’s chronically poor and underrepresented peoples are thoroughly understood and debated. The Public Debate on April 12th, at 7:00 pm at the Maxwell Auditorium, should provide some insight toward our ultimate verdict. In the meantime, longtime civic leader Vito Sciscioli has prompted us with several considerations surrounding the Consensus Report.
The Consensus Report is divided into 19 different topics of government consolidation, each concerned with a particular sector of government services (i.e., water, financial administration, courts, etc.). Sciscioli sifted through the report and highlighted four areas of priority based on the mission of ACTS. As a social justice organization striving for a just and fair community, we must hold the Consensus Report accountable for its treatment of:
Social Services and Health, and their coordination with other services such as public safety and education.
Land Use Planning and mitigating the effects of concentrated poverty.
Determining what is of regional importance to the community and how it should be funded
Creation of a government structure that allows for vigorous debate on the “right thing to do” in regards to allocation of public resources.
According to Sciscioli, there are 143,000 residents in Onondaga County that are eligible for temporary assistance, food stamps, subsidized child care, heating energy assistance, and Medicaid. Many of these programs are funded by the Federal and State governments and overseen by the County. Although these services are already consolidated in Onondaga County, changes on the national level may affect their availability. The question is: can the recommendations of the Consensus Report protect these important social services better than our current government structure?
Likewise, in terms of Land use, planning, and development, will the proposed Consensus Government better serve the welfare of the poor than the current government structure? For that, Sciscioli says that “a forum…regarding what constitutes a regionally important development, specific efforts to address concentrated poverty, and efforts to preserve natural assets would require power vesting for planning decisions in Onondaga County.” Perhaps a consolidated government would successfully address suburban sprawl and invest in developments that strengthen the city for all. Or, perhaps not.
The importance of taxes and how things are paid for within the County is another critical area. Does the Consensus Government address this in such a way that cost burdens are allocated proportionately across the county? Does the Consensus government address the issue of Syracuse’s debt as a regional problem? Or, will Syracuse have to pay its debt alone despite the harmful effects to the Onondaga region at large? Sciscioli notes that while many outside the city consider helping Syracuse’s debt “unfair,” they tend to forget that Syracuse residents form a generous portion of the “all County tax payers.” Without a thriving city core, suburb communities cannot thrive. We are in this together.
Finally, does the Consensus Government have the potential to provide a better forum where community issues can be discussed? Sciscioli urged ACTS Leaders at the Leadership Council to contemplate if the Consensus Report served the “Common Good” in terms of representation and allocation of political, economic, and social resources.
These questions need answering. Regardless of Onondaga County’s final decision on Consensus, ACTS commends the Commission for remembering to include the community in the development process. The Public Debate on a Metropolitan Form of Government for Onondaga County on April 12th should provide some of the insights needed to express a final verdict. This verdict will be influenced by the input of the ACTS Community Members, so attendance in these events are essential to an educated decision. We will see you at the Maxwell Auditorium!