New York Announces Competitive Grant For Local Government Performance and Efficiency

In efforts to help reduce the heavy tax burden on New York residents, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced an initiative designed to incentivize performance and reduce costs to local taxpayers.  A $40 million competitive grant fund is now set up as a part of Governor Cuomo’s structural reforms to relieve local governments from unfunded state mandates. This grant was initiated in the 2011-12 fiscal year, and is being renewed in the budget for the 2012-13 year.

The grant is now available to counties, cities, towns and villages, either individually or jointly. Based on an application, a reward will be given to local governments that have excelled in reducing property taxes and streamlining government.  The projects that are eligible must have started on or after January 1, 2010.

Applicants may receive as much as $25 per resident, with a maximum of $5 million.  The actual amount of the award will be based on the population, and the percentage of fiscal impact on the applicant’s total government expenditures.

The local government performance and efficiency incentive is highly beneficial to taxpayers, and the municipalities alike.  As Stephen Acquiario, Executive Director of the NYS Association of Counties said, “[t]hese. . . grants will recognize local governments which have stood up for their taxpayers and found smart, more efficient ways to keep costs under control.”

This post was prepared by Chelsea Keenan Albany Law School ’14

Colorado Regulatory Reform Embraces Community Collaboration

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) is charged with the task of “preserving the integrity of the marketplace and is committed to promoting a fair and competitive business environment in Colorado.”  As a result DORA has developed the initiative, “Cutting Red Tape in Colorado State Government: Making Government More Efficient, Effective and Elegant.”  A report published by DORA in december 2011, “Pits and Peeves Roundtable Initiative,” examined government reform ideas by collaborating with various business organizations, local governments, advocacy and community groups, non-profit groups, and academic institutions in a roundtable forum.  This forum allowed senior government officials to hear directly from businesses and community members what problems are causing government inefficiencies.

The report examines the issues, common themes, suggested solutions, progress thus far, and steps to be taken with respect to government and regulatory reform.  A few of the issues discussed were the need for change in government culture to focus on customer service, regulatory inefficiencies and delays, the need for greater coordination among agencies, the need for better coordination between federal and local agencies, the need for periodic review of agency rules and regulations to evaluate continuous need and effectiveness, making better use of available technology, the need for a go to person in each agency to help “customers,” the need to pay greater attention to economic/unintended adverse impacts of proposed regulations, requirements and procedures, and the need to pay more attention to ensuring that new regulations reflect legislative intent.

This reform tactic is founded on the belief that the problem must first be identified for any government reform to be successful.  To that end, Colorado is listening to the people who are on the front lines of governmental inefficiency and molding government reform actions around their collaboration.

The report is available here.

States Consider Removing Civil Service Protections for Employees

In light of the current fiscal realities states are faced with, government employees from around the nation have found themselves the object of increasing scorn from both the public and their own employers.  Most notably, Wisconsin became a battleground for labor issues beginning in 2010, as Governor Scott Walker pushed legislation which included provisions which cut benefits for government employees, including reductions in civil service protections.

Originally, civil service laws were enacted to remove patronage from government employment. The job protection measures included in civil service laws were meant to ensure that government employment is based on merit rather than political affiliation.  Theoretically, by insulating government employees from political influence, they could perform their jobs more efficiently and effectively—ultimately benefiting the public, who would enjoy an efficient government run by effective public servants.

However, a few states are now revisiting the idea of stripping civil service protections from government employment. In Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer recently proposed legislation which would require most new government employees to be hired under “at-will” contracts—meaning that these employees can be terminated at any time, and for any reason, as long as it’s not illegal. (It’s important to note that all states except Montana presume that employment is at will).  More significantly, the proposed legislation would offer a 5% pay increase to any government employee who voluntarily elects to become at-will. The Governor estimates that if this bill passes, more than 80% of the government workforce would be at-will within the next four years. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Justin Olson, touts that the bill “will implement common sense reforms,” while “bring[ing] Arizona’s state personnel system in-line with the most effective practices of the private sector.”

Arizona is not the first state to switch to civil service protection. Georgia switched to a largely at-will system in 1996, as did Indiana  more recently.

Other states are beginning to consider removing civil service protections as well. In Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam proposed legislation which would remove most civil service protections. In Colorado, Governor John Hickenloop called for bringing “the state’s antiquated personnel system into the 21st century.”

Click here for a more in-depth overview of this issue.

Court Restructuring, Economic Development, and the State of New York Courts

Last night, New York’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman gave his annual address on the state of the judiciary.  In his introduction, the Chief Judge echoed a familiar sentiment to those who follow most of the recent developments out of Albany: “As Governor Cuomo has said, now is the time to reinvent government and to work smarter.  Now is the time, not just to find ways to reduce costs, but more importantly, to rethink and fundamentally transform the way we do business.” The address went on to highlight a number of social initiatives, including: raising the age at which defendants in nonviolent cases are considered adults from 16 to 18; preventing wrongful convictions through a mix of eyewitness identification safeguards, videotaped interrogations, expanding the DNA data bank and enlarging convicted defendant’s rights to access to the new DNA bank; and enhancing legal services to underserved populations, particularly to mortgage foreclosure cases and indigent legal defense.

The Chief Judge also noted that New York courts “must seek to create an even more hospitable environment for business.”  To this end, the Chief Judge called for expanded electronic filing (which is still not widely required in New York) and further announced the creation of a “Task Force on Commercial Litigation in the 21st Century” to help reinvigorate the Commercial Division of the state’s Supreme Courts.

However, absent from the Chief Judge’s address was any call for court consolidation or restructuring.  The current structure of New York’s Courts has been described as:

The most archaic and bizarrely convoluted court structure in the country. Antiquated provisions in [New York’s] state Constitution create a confusing amalgam of trial courts: an inefficient and wasteful system that causes harm and heartache to all manner of litigants, and costs businesses, municipalities and taxpayers in excess of half a billion dollars per year.

New York currently has a court system that features eleven trial courts, (California, who has twice the population, only has one), and a disproportionate appellate court system which divides the state into four appellate departments (one department contains half of the state’s population) which was set up in the 1890s. Compare the structure of New York’s court system to other major commercial states, such as California or Delaware (see charts for all the states at the Court Statistics Project):

       Image          Image

The idea of court consolidation in is not new in New York State, and a number of appointed Task Forces have visited the problem time and again (the Tweed Commission issued reports between 1955-58, the Dominick Commission between 1970-73, the Vance Commission between 1974-76, and proposals in 1986 and 1997).

Continuing this trend, in 2006 former Chief Judge Kaye appointed a similar Task Force to assess the effective of the state’s current court structure and propose appropriate reforms.  The group, commonly referred to as the Dunne Commission, issued a report which proposed consolidation of the state’s trial courts, and the creation of a fifth appellate department. After the report was issued, the recommendations were endorsed by former Chief Judge Kaye and then Governor Elliot Spitzer. As the Commission found:

[I]n the millions of cases that are handled in [New York] state courts every year, people waste countless hours making redundant court appearances, filing unnecessary papers and briefs, and suffering through delays caused by courthouse backlogs and inefficiencies.  In addition to confusion and aguish, the practical effect of this is lost wages, lost productivity, and higher costs and attorney’s fees for individuals, businesses and government entities. Given the number of cases affected (3.7 million cases are resolved annually in the state courts) these hidden costs add up to $502 million per year.

Although the $502 million certainly seems extreme, the Dunne Commission was quick to point out that this estimate had “been vetted by economists, and the [] National Center for State Courts has not only endorsed [the] projections but referred to them as ‘conservative.’”  Through restructuring, the State would see a budget savings of approximately $60 million a year, while private individuals, businesses and municipalities would realize a cumulative savings of over $440 million.  The report further supplied an appendix which included an economic analysis to show the basis for these financial conclusions. Older reports by New York’s own Unified Court System have also projected significant savings for the state.

Notably, the Dunne Commission did not focus on New York’s vast (and oft criticized) network of Town and Village Justice Courts, and recommended that further research be done for their possible role in restructuring. The State Comptroller’s Office has a court consolidation pamphlet for municipalities, which, if done properly “could help increase the efficiency and effectiveness of justice courts without jeopardizing local court revenues or lessening access to justice.”  Local court consolidation could save municipalities budgets until greater reform is accomplished. For example, in New Orleans the Inspector General issued a report on the performance of the municipality’s City Courts and Traffic Courts. The report found that by consolidating courts, the City would see approximately $2.5 million in annual budget savings.  As states around the country reel from budget constraints, court restructuring initiatives may continue to get a harder look.

Courts around the country are increasingly finding themselves slowed by increased caseloads, yet smaller budgets. New York’s court system is no exception, and after a particularly harsh fiscal year which saw deep budget cuts that caused widespread court delays and personnel shortages, in 2012 it will operate a court system with a budget  that has been called “the bare minimum.”   An overburdened judiciary should be an area of deep concern for all citizens.