Do We Really Need County Government?

As I stated in an earlier post, I recently attended a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara titled “Who Needs County Government and Why?”. The four featured speakers discussed the history of county government in New York State and the services delivered to county residents.

90% of Erie County’s $1.2 billion budget is mandated by the state and federal government, services by law that have to be provided. I understand the importance of these mandated services but I question whether it is necessary to have an entire separate branch of elected government oversee the discretionary expenditure of $120 million.

If you view the minutes of the Erie County Legislature there is not a whole lot going on. There is very little to do regarding the budget as 90% of it is mandated, there are very few local laws passed and their meeting agenda consists of largely receiving and filing coorespondence.

Instead of an Erie County Department of Social Services you could have this department be part of the New York State Department of Social Services. The same could be done with the County Health Dept, Sheriff’s Dept. etc. Parks and Public Works could be taken over by the state or by towns to address county parks and roads in their jurisdictions.

Attorney Jim Magavern stated at the League of Women forum that he supported democracy and having local elected officials make decisions. I support democracy as well but the point is that there is not much for county elected officials to do other than pass symbolic resolutions that seek to generate support and name recognition for re-election to office.

Consider these facts below and express your opinion as to whether we really need county government.

Erie County has a County Executive, County Comptroller, County Sheriff, County Clerk and an 11 member legislature to do the following:

  • The county budget totals $1.2 billion of which only $120 million is controlled by the county. 90% of the county budget is mandated by the state and federal government. (Source County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz)
  • The legislature’s amendments to the county executives proposed budget in 2010 consisted of $8.2 million, .007%, not even 1% of the total budget. (Source County Comptroller Mark Poloncarz)
  • In 2011 the legislature changed $5 million of the county executives proposed budget again not even 1% of the total budget. (source
  • One of the important powers of the county legislature is to pass local laws. In 2011 the county legislature passed 3 laws, in 2010, 2 laws were passed. (Source
  • While very few laws were passed in 2011, 393 resolutions honoring individuals and community groups were passed! (Source
  • Connecticut, Rhode Island & Massachusetts have eliminated county government by transferring programs and services to the state, cities and towns. (Source, 5/31/11)
  • In March of 2010, Robert Bondi after 19 years of serving as Putnam County Executive questioned whether a county executive and county legislature were needed and whether a less expensive form of government can do the job. (Source 3/11/10)
  • The wealthy county governments of Rockland, Suffolk, Nassau and Westchester are all experiencing serious budget crisis. Erie County government is operating under a state imposed financial control board.

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Greg Ilkka

First of all, THANKS for posing the question! As a county employee it makes me think. One thing that came to mind is, it may depend on which state you are in, given each is uniquely structured. I think the easy answer is no, but as I think of how the services the counties provide are provided, I immediately think about which level of government can most efficiently provide them. Having worked at all levels – federal, state, county, and city, it has been my experience that the counties do the best job of providing efficient and effective services. At the state and federal levels there is too much bureaucracy (waste), and at the city too many decisions were driven by politics (who had the mayor’s ear). I have found the county to be just the right scale. Maybe this is just a fortunate circumstance in Minnesota.

Mark Sullivan

I also see a lot of variation from state to state. In the east where there is very little county land that is split up between cities, they may not serve a useful purpose. As you move further west, many citizens live outside of incorporated cities and townships. While technically they could have their interests and needs met by state government, most state governments are poorly structured to provide individual citizen services. Additionally, many of these rural citizens live hundreds of miles away from state capitols or other government offices, making responsive services impracticable.

Marian Henderson

I’m in Nevada, where we have only 17 counties in the entire state. Our state is mostly rural, with some counties having only one or two incorporated towns. I can’t imagine downsizing or eliminating our county governments since they provide most of the services in our rural state.

Paul Wolf

As you all have pointed out it appears that county government has a bigger role out west. In New York state and perhaps other north eastern states, counties are largely administrative arms of the state, where 90% of their budgets are mandated. Why not eliminate a middle bureaucracy that has very little discretion in how it operates?

Henry Brown

Suspect it is a “regional” issue, I have lived in San Diego and Huntsville Al where a significant portion of the population’s only seat at the table is through the county government; have lived in SF and San Jose (Calif) where the overwhelming majority of the county has representation on a “city” government.. Houston Tx and the eastern counties in MA seems to be a significant amount of “duplication” of effort and services…

Have, during extreme budget times, heard discussion’s regarding consolidation of services … Never seems to come to past, I suspect primarily because none of the government entities wants to give up any power.