Release Date: September 17, 2009
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- For the several local governments attempting to trim costs by cutting the size of its boards or legislators, the actual savings is likely to be negligible while loss in representation and responsiveness can be extreme, according to the latest research of the University at Buffalo Regional Institute.
The institute's latest policy brief, "Sizing up Local Legislatures," is intended to help inform public debate on an issue that has already moved two towns to downsize their boards and has at least three others considering the same step. Orchard Park will vote on cutting its board from five legislators to three on Sept. 23.
"The size of local government boards is a matter of dollars and cents, certainly, but also fundamentally affects the degree to which elected leaders can respond to and represent citizen interests as well as perform the basic functions of local government," said Kathryn A. Foster, institute director and co-author of the brief, a joint effort of the institute and University at Buffalo Law School.
"In the end, it is a balance between extremes -- the unwieldiness of a board that is too large, and the concentration of power in a board that is too small," she said.
Examined in the brief are cost and representation impacts from trimming two legislators from each of the 44 village, town and city legislatures in Erie County. Given typically low legislator salaries (less than $10,000 a year in villages and under $25,000 a year in towns) cost savings tend to be minimal. Across all 44 municipalities, two fewer legislators cut overall budgets by less than 1 percent, and more often closer to one-tenth of 1 percent.
On a per-citizen basis, the scant savings are even more apparent -- generally less than $4 per citizen annually. Exceptions to this included the county's smallest communities, where savings are spread over fewer people. For example, citizens in Farnham, population 317, would save $12 a year with two fewer village trustees.
At the same time, the loss of representation can be significant, as remaining legislators must serve a greater number of constituents. For example, in West Seneca, which voted earlier this year to trim two legislators from its board of five, the per-legislator constituent base would increase by nearly 6,000 citizens, from about 8,800 to 14,600. In Amherst, legislators on a smaller board would need to serve 40 percent more constituents.
"There is no optimal legislature size, with the design of a governing body shaped by a range of factors, including the complexity of services provided, the diversity of the constituent base and the political dynamics of a community," said James A. Gardner, vice dean for academic affairs in the UB Law School and co-author of the brief.
"Generally, larger boards are better suited where the constituent base is diverse, the scope and complexity of municipal functions is broad, legislator workload (including committee assignments) is high and susceptibility to special interests or corruption is high," added Gardner, who is also chair of the institute's Advisory Council.
Historically, across the nation and New York State, there are usually between five and seven members on local government boards, a trend partly shaped by the National Municipal League's "Model City Charter," which has recommended this size range for the past 20 years.
For those communities in the midst of the local government downsizing debate, the brief recommends constituents carefully consider their goals, values and priorities for local government as they weigh the tradeoffs involved.
"There is no right answer -- the choice is up to each community. However, if cost savings are the primary driver behind downsizing local government, this approach may prove ineffective," according to Foster. She said that significant savings are best realized by eliminating or reducing local government services or finding efficiencies in the delivery of those services.
"Sizing up Local Legislatures," is part of the institute's policy brief series, which informs regional issues with timely, reliable data and analysis.
The UB Regional Institute is an interdisciplinary research and policy center applying evidence-based analysis to issues affecting regions. With a focus on the binational Buffalo Niagara region, the institute leverages its expertise, capacities and partnerships to ask critical questions, inform debate and guide change. A major center of the University at Buffalo, the institute is a unit of the UB Law School.
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.