Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Joel Miller's Flawed Legislation for Fire District Budget Empowerment

New York State Assemblyman Joel Miller has introduced legislation to provide for public vote on fire district budgets in the November general election. Under current New York State law, fire district budgets are controlled by the district's board of fire commissioners. Miller's legislation A9762A, called the Fire District Budget Empowerment Act, shifts the approval of fire district budgets from the fire commissioners to the general public. Miller announced his popular vote initiative in an April 22, 2012, Valley Views article in the Poughkeepsie Journal.

Popular Vote on Budget Is Inconsistent With Other Local Governments

As I see it, popular vote on fire district budgets is a risky departure from most governance in this country. There is no public vote on the federal budget, there is no public vote on the New York State budget, there is no public vote on the Dutchess County budget, or on city or village budgets. Instead, the general public votes for representatives (government officials such as legislators, councilmen, etc.) who in turn decide on agency budgets. This is the principle of representative democracy, one of the foundations of this country. In the case of fire districts, the people vote for fire commissioners, who in turn control the budget.

Direct Democracy Is Seldom Used But Often Problematic

Miller's initiative is an example of direct democracy, in which policy decisions are made by popular vote, bypassing or overriding government officials. Direct democracy for economic decisions is used only sparingly in the United States. In California, many major economic decisions beginning with the infamous Proposition 13 have been made by popular vote, with disastrous results.

The founding fathers were very much opposed to direct democracy (also called “pure democracy”), according to Wikipedia. John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, said, “Pure democracy cannot subsist long nor be carried far into the departments of state – it is very subject to caprice and the madness of popular rage.” The American colonists favored representative democracy — not direct democracy. That's why they said “No taxation without representation.” They didn't say “No taxation without popular vote.”

Why should fire districts be any different from other local governments?

Fire districts are just one more kind of local government taxing authority in New York State, along with Towns, cities, villages, and counties. I know of no reason why fire districts should be governed differently than any of these other taxing authorities. In my view, fire districts should continue to use the same budget approval process as most other local taxing authorities.

Incorrect and Misleading Statements in Valley View Article

Miller's Valley View article contains misleading statements, and at least one statement that is just plain wrong. In the context of the Fairview Fire District's high fire tax rate, Miller writes:
Fairview alone had fire district tax rates nearly 10 times higher than 27 other towns in Dutchess County in 2010.
This statement is absurd, since there are only 20 towns in Dutchess County. Well, perhaps Miller meant “fire districts” instead of “towns”, since there are about 31 fire districts in Dutchess County. I checked with Miller's office, and was assured that yes, that's what he meant. Well, wrong again! My tax rate analysis from 2009 shows (page 14) that Fairview's tax rate was 10 times higher than 13 other fire districts — not 27 other fire districts. Miller's research staffer has conceded that the Valley Views statement — even after changing “towns” to fire districts” — is incorrect.

Miller misleadingly writes, “This legislation will permit public participation in fire district budgets ...,” as if public participation in the fire district budget process doesn't already exist. But New York State law already requires a fire district to publicize its tentative budget and to hold a public hearing on the budget, during which public input is received. In this way again, state law provides for public participation in the fire district budget process just as it does in most other kinds of local government, including counties, cities, villages, and schools.

This Is My Opinion

Most of my previous posts have been nonpartisan, focusing on objective facts. This post (except for the last section) is clearly my own opinion. Therefore, it's marked with an “Opinion” label. As always, I welcome your reasoned comments.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.