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THE ORGANIZATION OF COUNTY GOVERNMENT1
GEORGE S. BUCK
Auditor of Erie County
ROM the choice of this topic there is plainly considerable interest in the present organization of county govern
ment in New York state, as well as the question of how it works and what may be done to make it work better. My justification for attempting to speak on this subject is an experience of eight years as a Buffalo member of the Erie county board of supervisors and of three years as head of what is in fact, though not in name, a county comptroller's office. For a period of four years prior to holding any office, I was a member of the Republican county committee, so that my acquaintance with the influences at work in county affairs has been gathered by practical experience in several different positions.
Except in the region included in Greater New York, every county has a board of supervisors of one member from each township and one from each ward in the cities. This method. has been followed since the office of supervisor of the town was first created in 1703. The number of members constituting a board varies greatly in different places. Sometimes the supervisors from the cities are in the majority, sometimes those from the towns. In Erie county the board is equally divided in spite of the fact that about four-fifths of the population is in Buffalo. As the city has grown, new wards have been created and new towns have been made to preserve the balance of power until our county board has fifty-four members.
The powers of the supervisors are, briefly, to audit accounts, fix salaries, have general charge of all tax matters and appropriations, a share in the care of roads and bridges and many other minor matters. A board organizes itself like any legis
1 Read at the meeting of the Academy of Political Science, November 20, 1914.
lative body with a clerk and committees to handle various classes of subjects, as the finance committee, to pass on questions relating to the county's money matters, or as the almshouse and penitentiary committees, with jurisdictions shown by their names. Everything which comes before the board is first referred to the appropriate committee. Most boards have committees on purchasing of supplies and auditing of claims. A few appoint officials to perform these acts.
In addition to the supervisors chosen from small districts, each county elects at large a treasurer, sheriff, district attorney, county judge, surrogate, coroners, and county clerk, who is both clerk of the courts and register of deeds. Erie county elects an auditor, and a commissioner of charities who appoints the keeper of the penitentiary and of the almshouse, the medical examiner who takes the place of the coroners, and the keeper of the lodging house. There have been so many special acts allowing different counties to handle the same offices in different ways that enumeration of the variations would be tedious and unprofitable.
Now let us come to the question, how does it work? The officials elected at large are all dependent upon the board of supervisors for appropriations. It is a matter of course to grant an appropriation the same as the year before, but any increase, any improvement of service is dependent upon the good-will of the supervisors for the necessary grant of money. Sometimes this leads to a division of responsibility, as the head of an office will say that he did something to please the committee of the board in charge of his department, and the committee will allege that they acted to accommodate him. There are several worse defects than this, however. There is no compulsory coöperation between the units. Each office, or department, can go its own way without reference to the others. For example, in the matter of supplies each department buys certain classes of its own, and the board the rest, thereby sacrificing all the advantage which comes from concentrated purchases. The men who buy for departments are likely either to have political friends to remember, or the supplies are a minor matter, as the department will be judged by
its administrative work in other fields. Carelessness in buying. may not matter much in one department, but when many are added together it becomes a serious loss. There are two counties which have purchasing agents, but they represent a reform bound to go forward slowly because the supervisors do not want to give up their powers, nor do the heads of departments wish to be held down to standard articles by a purchasing agent. There are other wasteful effects from lack of coöperation, but the purchasing of supplies is the most glaring.
As the supervisors are elected from towns or wards, they naturally consider first the interests of their constituents. There is constantly present the temptation to sacrifice the interests of the county as a whole to the interests of one locality. It sometimes happens that a supervisor makes a very bad record, judged by the demands of the public interest, but if he is personally known and liked in the little district from which he is elected, the anathemas of the press and citizens' organizations have no effect, and back he comes term after term, waiting until he finds a congenial majority in control to heap up for himself more wrath from the public who cannot get at him.
The wonder is that results are not worse than they have been when one is familiar with what men must go through in certain localities in order to be elected. Usually the rural supervisor is a leading farmer or merchant or local lawyer. From the cities there are some men anxious to make a good name and reputation, and in no other way able to secure political recognition. But at the best, these men are all busy at something beside county affairs. They cannot give more than a part of a couple of days weekly to the board and its committee meetings. The greater part of the work that is done is due to a few members, while the rest are spectators.
The annual equalization of taxes is a source of perpetual trouble. All assessors are sworn to assess property at its full value, but in practice their appraisals vary from forty to one hundred per cent. To distribute a tax fairly these discrep
ancies between the assessments of towns and cities must be equalized by the board of supervisors of each county. It is a
duty of the board to appoint a committee of its members to ascertain in each town or city the difference between the assessed and real values. In a large county like Erie it would take so much time to do this properly that the supervisors will not attempt it, and they have no authority to hire it done for them except at such a low figure that no one capable of doing the work will take the job. Consequently equalization is the resultant of guesswork and conflicting interests. If a board is under the control of an unscrupulous majority an independent country supervisor is in danger of punishment by having more than a fair share of the equalization spread against his town by the board, and there are towns which for years escape with too little. A town supervisor is held responsible by his people for the tax rate, and the dread of equalization day settles more questions than the merits involved. The town assessors frequently do not do their work properly, so that when county treasurers try to sell unpaid taxes, they cannot.
So much for how county government works; now as to how to make it do better. There is a widespread and growing opinion that a small board elected at large from a municipality is more truly representative of the community as a whole than one chosen from little districts; that the latter will reflect the civic intelligence or the lack of it in each district, but will never be imbued with the spirit and point of view of the municipality as a whole. New York has elected at large and from boroughs a small board in the powerful board of estimate and apportionment, and Buffalo has just voted by a large majority in favor of giving all legislative and executive powers in the city to five councilmen to be selected at large.
There are many states in the union where county affairs are managed by a small board chosen at large and there is no agitation for change. Why is it not fair to conclude that a small board of supervisors chosen from the county as a whole would be an improvement over the large boards elected from small districts? Three or five men, paid good salaries, could devote all their time to county business and become familiar with it and expert in the matters demanding their attention.
Each supervisor would be sensitive to the wishes of his constituents in any part of the county, so that they would suffer no neglect, but he could never afford to back the interests of one small section against the rest of the county.
Personally I should like to see the district attorneys and sheriffs appointed by the governor. We know that as a people we are lacking in respect for law, and we are prone to blame the delays and technicalities of the courts and the impossibility of keeping up with the multitude of statutes ground out annually by the legislatures. But why is it that there is respect for federal statutes? This contrast was first called to my attention by a United States attorney. What is the explanation? The federal laws are enforced by marshals and district attorneys who are responsible to Washington. Local opinion has no influence on their actions. The state laws are enforced by sheriffs and district attorneys chosen by local opinion. If a man holds views contrary to such opinion, he cannot be elected, or if chosen in ignorance of his ideas, he retires to private life at the end of his term. If United States attorneys and marshals were elected by the districts in which they serve, the enforcement of federal statutes would be a local issue. The enforcement of state statutes, particularly the liquor law, is a local issue, not openly to be sure, but to one in touch with the political situation the issue is there, and its influence on the course of events is easy to follow.
If the public opinion of the state wants certain laws, why should it not see that they are uniformly enforced? The right and duty of the state seem undeniable, but at present public opinion is wedded to the local control of the sheriff's office and the district attorney. In view of this situation, it is probably better that those officers should be elected at large rather than appointed by a smaller board of supervisors. Nullification of state laws is bound to be an issue as long as sheriffs and district attorneys are chosen locally. If they should be appointed by the board, then nullification would be an issue in the election of supervisors, and a great hindrance to the choice of men properly qualified. It would seem far better to keep the board out of this kind of politics.