Town Government Is Good, As Long As It’s Cheap

I have learned over the years that we don’t change more than we do change. We all think that we are flexible and ready for change but, in truth, change is something we don’t like. We like things they way they are or were. In our body politic, we usually cling to the old even if it doesn’t make logical sense.

As you look back on the history of Chautauqua County, it all started in 1811 when the county was organized. At about that same time or shortly thereafter, many of the townships with which we are now identified came into being. Think about the timeline – the county was founded 35 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Put that into our perspective – 35 years ago was 1978 – not so many years back.

If we were to put new names on our political geography today, we would probably use names familiar to us 35 years ago – Nixon, Kennedy, Rockefeller, Reagan. That is what was done over the time that political subdivisions were created in the county. Some of our townships were designated from the big names that emerged during the time of the Revolutionary War. Carroll, Sherman, Gerry and Clymer were all signers of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. We still live with those townships and 23 more today. (There are 27 towns in Chautauqua County.)

I have often wondered how the boundaries of our towns were determined. A lot of it dealt with surveyor lines, but I think that some of it must have had to do with travel time. Some of our towns were spinoffs from larger ones. If it took more than three or four hours by horse to cross from one side of the town to the other, you probably petitioned for a smaller municipality to be formed. Depending upon where you lived, it took a day or at least half a day to drive a horse and buggy to the county seat in Mayville. In part, we probably established the boundaries of our political subdivisions based upon time of travel. We didn’t want them too big. We wanted them contained within a reasonable (horse-related) driving distance. We still have these towns today. Only now you can drive from one side of a township to the other on good, well-paved roads in 10 minutes.

Why do we still have them? It goes back again, I believe, to the fact that we don’t like change. We stick with tradition, with what is familiar. A lot of what we do as citizens goes back to the “horse-and-buggy days.” If we were to draw municipal or township lines today, I doubt that the map would look anything like what we have. There would probably be six townships in the county: Southeast, Southwest, Central-east, Central-west, Northeast and Northwest with Chautauqua Lake at the center of them all. Why would you need any more local government?

Instead, we stick with the same 27 townships we have always had with their own supervisors, highway departments, dog catchers, clerks, tax collectors, constables and garbage collectors. We still need those services, but do we need 27 separate jurisdictions in order to get it done? Probably not. But, as long as it works and isn’t too expensive, we go along with it. Which comes back, of course, to taxes.

It was interesting to analyze a recent real property tax bill from one of our local townships. 72 percent of the bill was actually the county tax levy described as “Medicaid” (37 percent), Community College (7 percent), and “county tax” (28 percent). All of these taxes are levied at the county level. (We know that the county has been talking about getting out of the Medicaid business but, several years ago, when there was an opportunity to do so, it opted to remain as the sponsor of this state/federal program.) The money from the town tax bill I looked at which actually went to the town was 25 percent: 18 percent for general purposes and 7 percent for the fire department. The great majority of the taxes being collected by the township in fact went to Chautauqua County.

A student of government once told me: “The problem of governing in New York state is that we got caught between the town system of New England and the county system of the South. We decided to have both systems here in New York!” Based upon the real property tax bill, the biggest obligation of town government today is to collect taxes for the county.

I was interested to note that in 1918, about 100 years after the founding of the Town of Harmony, that the Chautauqua County board of supervisors authorized the creation of the Town of North Harmony. Does that mean that the County Legislature, today, could vote to recreate the Town of Harmony as it was originally configured? Could we move to consolidate some towns now that we no longer have to be concerned with “horse and buggy” travel times? I would assume that we could petition the county or the state Legislature to do so, but would anyone petition? The towns cost some extra money but, in the scheme of things, compared with the county tax levy and the cost of schools, town taxes really don’t seem to be much of a financial burden. So frankly, I doubt that we will see much of a movement to change the system.

Maybe that is okay. Town government is illustrative of a major reality in our American body politic: if it is working and not too expensive, don’t change it. If this were the private sector, someone would change it. But that brings us back to another axiom: “Government is not business. It is politics.” We want to relate to those who govern us. We would rather have them around the corner so that we can call on them and hold them accountable. It looks to me like New York state will always be stuck with the county and town forms of government. We will continue to embrace both of them. To that extent, those of us who call Chautauqua County “home,” will probably continue to support town government – as long as it doesn’t get too expensive.

A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.