Community

The Lay of the Land: Understanding Local Government

Feb 03, 2015 Country Wisdom News
by Terence P Ward   
The Alligerville Fire House is in the hamlet of Alligerville
in the town of Rochester, and part of the Accord Fire District.
Like those who live anywhere in the state with the notable exception of the city of New York, residents of the Mid-Hudson Valley exist within a complex web of governmental oversight. Those who pay the property taxes that fund most local governments may be somewhat mystified by different municipalities and districts that send a bill, and everybody else, including renters who don’t pay those taxes directly, are often completely confused as to which office is responsible for that annoying pot hole on Main Street. The pervasiveness of this lack of understanding is unfortunate, since it’s in local government that individual citizens are most likely to effect change, and it’s the decisions made by local governments that often have the biggest impact on individual lives. Here’s a short primer on who’s who and what’s what in the neighborhood.
New York is divided into 62 counties, including Ulster and Dutchess, which have governments that are able to collect a sales tax (if the state legislature approves) in addition to property taxes. Both counties connected by the Mid-Hudson and Kingston-Rhinecliff bridges have a county executive and a legislature,, mirroring the executive and legislative branches found at the state and federal levels, although Ulster only introduced an executive as recently as 2008. The county executive makes most of the day-to-day decisions, including deciding what to spend money on, while the legislature approves budgets (deciding how much money to spend) and passes the laws that the executive must enforce. Each county has a sheriff’s department that runs a jail and patrols roads, to some extent, and manages social services. In this area, residents vote for legislators to represent their district of the county, and all voters in the county get to pick the county executive.
New York state’s 62 counties.

Each county, in turn, is neatly divided into towns. This, however, is the last neat division one will find among New York local governments. At the helm is a town council (sometimes called a town board) which includes a town supervisor. The supervisor runs meetings, but doesn’t have veto power. This individual is also the financial officer of the town, setting a budget that the board must approve and making sure all the money is property accounted for. Towns are workhorses in the arena of local government, and take care of many tasks that directly impact people, such as plowing roads and developing programs for youth and seniors. They administer the zoning codes that determine how properties may be developed and prosecute building safety violations. Many, but not all, towns have municipal water, sewer, and police. Most town boards in the state are elected at-large by all town residents, with Wappinger being one of less than a dozen to elect council members to represent a number of wards drawn inside town borders.

Villages, unlike counties and towns, exist because the people living there wanted it to be so. When 500 or more people in an area agree to incorporate, a village is created. Each is governed by a village board and mayor, who, like a town supervisor, doesn’t have the power to veto board decisions. Because of how they are created, about 15% of villages are in more than one town, including the village of Wappingers Falls, which is in the towns of Wappinger and Poughkeepsie. Villages have considerable variation regarding the services provided, which may include water, sewer, police, fire, and road maintenance. Villages also have their own zoning codes. If a village does not have a particular service, such as police, its residents pay a larger unit of government (towns or counties, in most cases) to step in and provide it. Village laws trump the rules of the town(s) within which they they lie.
It might be easier to understand the differences between villages and towns if not for an abundance of confounding terms, which, while don’t actually carry legal significance, are firmly part of the local vernacular. One of these is the “township,” which doesn’t carry any legal weight in New York, but is a basic form of government in New Jersey, where it fills the spot that towns have in this state.
Another one is “hamlet,” which, like township, is not defined under New York law and thus has no government of its own. However it is commonly used to refer to a community within a town that is not incorporated as a village but is identified by a name. Hamlets often have historical names corresponding to the local school district, post office, or fire district. Because a hamlet has no government of its own, it depends upon the town or towns that contain it for municipal services and government. For example, Rhinecliff is a hamlet within the town of Rhinebeck. Similarly, across the river in the town of Lloyd is the hamlet of Highland, which has no mayor, and is managed by the Lloyd town supervisor. The fact that the post office, and thus all the mailing addresses in the town, are in Highland does nothing to simplify matters.
Many hamlets (including Rhinecliff and Highland) are classified as “census designated places” or CDPs, which the United States Census Bureau identifies as concentrations of population for statistical purposes. CDPs are populated areas that lack separate municipal government, but which otherwise physically resemble incorporated places. These are often referred to as unincorporated villages or communities.
Cities, like villages, are specially-incorporated areas, but with more authority. Unlike villages, cities don’t exist inside of towns. Like many villages, the two local cities—Kingston and Poughkeepsie—each have a nearby town with the same name, adding to confusion about what government lies where. Cities provide all the basic services residents require, the most visible of which are often on the roads—maintaining and plowing thoroughfares, police patrolling, and street lighting. The local cities each have a common council and a mayor, but Poughkeepsie’s mayor is more ceremonial than Kingston’s, as a city manager is employed to administer services there.
Beyond these general purpose governments are a stunning number of “special districts,” each of which is technically a government itself. Schools are the most prominent among these, but New York law also allows for special districts for lighting, fire protection, and sidewalks, among others. Residents of a special district pay property taxes for a specific purpose, be it to educate children or keep streetlights maintained, and some (such as school and fire districts) hold elections. Most special districts, however, are created by towns so that the price of a particular service, such as building sidewalks, will be paid for by the people enjoying that service, rather than sharing the cost among all residents.
Given the mind-numbing array of governmental entities, figuring out who should be fixing that pot hole on Main Street can feel overwhelming. Roads in particular can be confusing, because ownership and responsibility are not always quite the same. A village may not maintain town roads that pass through its borders, but the county may have agreed to handle repairs on state roads in return for reimbursement. The wisest strategy is to go to the smallest division of government possible, as many local problems are handled on that level. You can discover this division by verifying your property tax bills, if you are the owner of the property. Renters should not hesitate to ask their landlords to explain which town and county they live in, and whether or not there’s a village or city government as well.
In light of the complex mosaic of local governments that layers the landscape, one can only appreciate why Governor Cuomo and his predecessors have worked on finding ways to eliminate some of redundant levels.