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Here’s what the planned Syracuse-Onondaga County government merger looks like

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The citizen group Consensus on Thursday released its final recommendations for combining the governments of the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County. In it, the commission recommends creating one legislative body with 33 legislators.

The citizen group Consensus on Thursday released its final recommendations for combining the governments of the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County. The group, composed of 19 legislators and community members, has urged not only the government merger, but also the combination of some essential government services offered by both the city and the county to save money.

Below are some of the key points made in Consensus’ final recommendations.

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New government structure
Consensus endorses unifying the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County into a single government. The citizen group supports this idea for multiple reasons, saying the merger will save money, improve government services and stimulate the area’s economy.

The group has proposed that the governments be combined into one legislative body with 33 legislators. The legislative body would be composed of 29 districts and four at-large representatives, with each representative carrying one vote. Nine out of the 29 districts would be drawn in combined, city-suburb “hybrid” districts. The report pointed out the Onondaga County Legislature already has seven “hybrid” districts.

Consensus also recommended that a chief executive be elected by voters within the county to run the proposed city-county legislative body.

Cornelius Murphy, Jr., co-founder of Consensus and former president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, said Consensus reviewed 12 different governance models, studied past government consolidation efforts and collected public input from about 6,000 people before making its recommendations.

Consensus has provided a timeline for the implementation of the new governance proposal. In the timeline, the group proposes a referendum to be held regarding the government merger in 2017, which if passed would establish a period of transition between the merged and non-merged governments throughout 2018. A new legislative council would then begin in 2019.

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced during his regional State of the State tour in January a plan requiring each county outside of New York City to come up with a plan to reduce duplication of government services for efficiency and property-tax savings.

With Cuomo’s plan, county executives or county managers, like Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, need to write a draft proposal on how their counties can save money by consolidating services and submit it to their respective county legislature by Aug. 1. The proposals would be put on the ballot and go through a referendum in an election this November, unless a county legislature rejects the proposal during a 45-day reviewing period. If the county legislature rejected the proposal, county executives would have to make a new proposal for November 2018.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner criticized the recommendations, calling Consensus’ final report “a plan for the worst form of corporate looting,” in a statement.

“I will be urging my fellow citizens to actively oppose any initiative to adopt its recommendations,” Miner said in her press release.

The report states the city-county consolidation could yield savings between $8.7 and $22.9 million a year.

Law enforcement
Consensus has proposed merging the Syracuse Police Department and the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office.

The report pointed to an overall decline in officers working both at the city and county level while the number of calls requesting assistance in the area has remained steady. This trend generates inefficiency by adding more burden on remaining officers, the report states.

By combining the SPD with the sheriff’s office, the report estimates there would be savings created between $3.4 and $5.8 million, enabling more police officers to patrol streets and law enforcement agencies to purchase new equipment. 

Fire protection and emergency medical services
Consensus has recommended creating a countywide “Operations Support Organization” that will provide services — such as recruitment and training and equipment management — to all fire stations.

In its recommendations, the group also supported the establishment of a new countywide system that would have fewer emergency service providers covering larger areas of land within the county. The report stated that the new countywide system would strengthen emergency services by making sure they depend less on taxpayer subsidies, while also increasing economic viability in the area.

Economic development
The Consensus report presented a bleak picture of the economic situation in central New York. In the county as a whole, there are 24,500 fewer people working in 2016 compared to 1990, equivalent of 10.3 percent decline, according to the report. The city also lost 18,000, or 24.6 percent, of its labor force. Citing a Brooks Institution’s report, the report noted Syracuse ranked 96th in economic growth out of the 100 largest metro areas in the United States from 2009 to 2014.

Data from the United States Census Bureau shows 34.6 percent of the population in Syracuse lived below the poverty level between 2009 and 2013. Syracuse also has the one of the highest rates of poverty among black people and Hispanics in the U.S.

The recommendations proposed merging the city and county’s Industrial Development Agencies and economic development offices, establishing a countywide shared tax framework — or a Municipal Development Fund — to broaden tax bases and creating a countywide land use plan.

Courts
The Consensus report noted there are 19 town courts and nine village courts, which adds up to $18 million in total judicial cost. The final recommendations suggest to “aggressively” pursue shared services by cutting back the number of separate justice courts within the county to serve a bigger population, allowing the village courts to be absorbed to neighboring town courts, increasing the share of fine revenue and seeking to establish a regional court system.

Social services and health
The Consensus report pointed out the county spent $311.7 million in social services and health, with $98.5 million covered with Medicaid. As the New York State Department of Health has taken over about 25 percent of Medicaid eligibility administrative functions from the county, the report highlighted that the state continues to pass down cost-sharing responsibilities on local taxpayers.

The citizen group argues that reforming a cost-sharing model would be an opportunity to form a new partnership between the county and the state, allowing the state to shoulder more Medicaid cost burden in exchange of the county pursuing the group’s recommendations.

Corrections
The report calls for unifying Onondaga County Sheriff’s Custodial Division with the Department of Corrections.

Water
The report recommends integrating City of Syracuse Water Department and the Onondaga County Water Authority.

The report also describes areas of potential savings in street and highway maintenance, wastewater, solid waste, tax assessment, financial administration, code enforcement, clerk and libraries. By unifying those services, the report states, there could be between $7.9 and $9.9 million savings generated annually.

Graphic by Kiran Ramsey | Design Editor

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