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In This Together

At a time when revenues are shrinking and taxpayers are screaming for lower taxes and maintained services, the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County are searching for new efficiencies through consolidation.

 Syr Gov
Mayor Stephanie Miner (left) and Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney take part in Syracuse’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade (photo: Chuck Wainwright)

The financial bind in which the City of Syracuse finds itself is familiar to municipalities across the country — as costs for pensions and health care rise dramatically, state and federal aid shrinks, and the economic recovery continues to move slowly. Syracuse’s pension costs alone rose 40 percent in the last year, and the city has little control over the increases; at the same time, Syracuse is heavily reliant on Albany — in the throes of its own budget crisis — for more than half of its overall city and school budget. “The day of reckoning is not coming,” commented Stephanie Miner ’92 BA (PSc), mayor of Syracuse, in her 2011 State of the City address. “It has arrived.”

Miner had little choice but to begin confronting these issues when she was inaugurated in 2010. The causes are complex, she says, but boil down to one basic problem. “There are not enough resources anymore,” says Miner. “As a consequence of that, we need to rethink how government delivers services. I have said to my staff that we are primarily concerned about the service that is delivered. If somebody else can do it more efficiently or more effectively, then we will work with them to do that.”

Miner’s directive to rethink government services has brought a wave of changes to City Hall — consolidation and reorganizing of departments, elimination of nearly 200 funded staff positions, and new systems for everything from code enforcement to allocation of federal housing funds. For Miner, a crucial partner in these initiatives is Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, who like Miner is the first woman to hold her office. (Miner is actually the first woman to be mayor of any major city in New York.) Though Miner is a Democrat and Mahoney a Republican, they share a pragmatic, nonpartisan approach and have brought a spirit of cooperation to the city/county relationship that many observers say has been sorely lacking for years. In the words of Syracuse organizational management consultant Judy Mower ’80 MA (SPsy)/’84 PhD (SPsy), “We have two executives now who seem to get it that we rise and fall together.”

“We rise and fall together.”

Signs of new cooperation include the merger of city and county purchasing, and the impending relocation of city and county business development departments to a single office in Armory Square. A recent compromise for sharing sales-tax revenues averted what many expected to be a prolonged battle between the city and the county legislature.

The philosophy of working together across city and county lines was already in place “prior to the meltdown that a lot of municipalities are experiencing right now,” according to Ann Rooney ’86 MPA, deputy county executive for human services and part of Mahoney’s inner circle. Even so, Rooney says, the budget crisis has surely accelerated and broadened reforms in city and county government. “Now that there is so much crisis from a financial perspective,” she says, “it forces us to look at everything that we do — not just in certain areas — and what is the best way to do it and who is in the best position to deliver that service. Sometimes it’s the county, sometimes it’s the city, sometimes it’s towns and villages.”

Miner characterizes this new era of reform and reinvention in particularly stark terms. “People realize that when their back is against the wall, it’s either looking at doing things differently or ceasing to do the service at all,” she says. “So you either come up with a creative arrangement or in the very near future we’ll just have to sever providing those services or the jobs that go along with them. Period.

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and the author, most recently, of The Complete Singer-Songwriter. 
This article appeared in the spring 2011 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2011 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.