New York: The Politics of Local Control

In your local town, someone must decide when to instruct road crews to shut down street lanes. Someone must decide when to expand classroom hours in public schools. And someone must decide when to approve projects to construct buildings.

So who actually decides when to perform these tasks? Is it your town’s mayor? The legislative council? Or perhaps an administrative employee?

Ironically, if you live in New York City — obviously, a metropolis with sufficient wealth to hire local citizens to perform these tasks — the Mayor, City Council, and municipal work force are severely restrained from exercising authority over such decisions. Just last week, for instance, a trio of events illustrated the limits of local authority in the Big Apple.

The first involved the notorious decision to wage a political war by shutting down local access lanes onto a bridge that carries traffic between Manhattan and New Jersey. The decision was initially imposed by New Jersey state officials; New York appointees labored for four full days to (eventually) reopen the lanes.

The second involved a pledge by Mayor Bill de Blasio to develop full day pre-kindergarten and after school programs, to be funded by a new income tax on wealthy residents. Such a tax requires the approval of state government, but during his annual State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (while endorsing the policy in theory) avoided any endorsement of the tax.

The third involved a court decision to block New York University (NYU) from obliterating three tiny parks in order to clear space for a massive construction project. Although NYU obtained city approval for the project, its officials appear to have overlooked the need to obtain state approval to build on city parkland. Lacking state approval, the State Supreme Court halted the project.

Advocates of local control over municipal decisions are undoubtedly aghast at these recent events. Why must local officials waste four full days seeking approval to open a couple of road lanes? Why can’t a municipality impose a tax to improve its public school system? And why shouldn’t a municipal zoning board make decisions about the appropriate use of public space?

On the other hand, although no one is defending the lane closure decision, many are now applauding New York State’s control over the Big Apple’s taxation and parkland use policies. After all, without such constraints in place, wealthy residents might have already started paying higher income taxes, and New York University might have already obliterated those three public parks.

If you were asked to chair a legislative committee to draft amendments to the constitutions of the State and City of New York, would you recommend the institution of local control over these governmental decisions?