Local elections held in years when there is no presidential or congressional election typically don’t draw as many voters as when the national players are on the ballot. However, the results of local elections can often be more important than national ones.
Local elections, for instance, can be a factor in determining whether or not someone gets to build a recycling center next door to your home. In some towns in NY and townships in PA, there are no zoning laws, and therefore nothing to prevent someone from building a recycling center next door to anyone’s home.
In towns and that do have zoning schemes, the zoning laws are adopted by the town boards in NY and the boards of supervisors in PA. The local lawmakers in each state are elected by the people who live in the municipality, and the lawmakers, in turn, appoint people who enforce the zoning laws through planning boards and zoning boards of review in NY, and planning commissions and zoning hearing boards in PA.
Zoning issues come up frequently in towns and townships in this area, and are quite often the reason that attendance at town or township meetings swells from a handful of people to dozens or hundreds. One of the most important zoning decisions of recent decades in New York State regarded hydraulic fracturing (fracking). The turmoil began essentially as a question of whether towns had the authority to ban fracking. Ultimately, the New York State Court of Appeals determined that town officials do indeed have the right to ban fracking, but that case started out as a local issue in the towns of Dryden and Middlefield with board members fighting for their constituents to ban fracking. In Sullivan County, local elected officials in the towns of Bethel, Forestburgh, Highland, Lumberland and Tusten voted to ban fracking.
Local elected officials are also responsible for the condition of local roads. In many townships in Pennsylvania, one of the supervisors is also the roadmaster and is responsible for the township roads. In New York, most towns have an elected highway superintendent, who is responsible for keeping the local roads in decent shape and cleared of snow in the winter. A few towns in the state have an appointed Department of Public Works commissioners instead of an elected highway superintendent. But in either case, and on both sides of the river, if you have a complaint with local roads, the buck stops with an elected official.
At the county level, one of the biggest responsibilities county legislators have in NY and county commissioners have in PA is seeing after the health and well-being of the public at large. That means many state and federal dollars flow through the counties, which then are responsible for running programs that deal with a host of issues.
The Sullivan County Division of Family Services is a sprawling department that operates the county’s nursing home, mental health services and programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Office for the Aging and Public Health Services, which, among other things, responded to this year’s measles outbreak. The cost of providing those services runs in the neighborhood of $14 million per year.
At the top of each of these services is a commissioner with specialized training in the area he or she oversees, they and the commissioners report to and are hired by the nine elected members of the county legislature.
The county is also responsible for large capital projects such as the completion of the new Sullivan County Jail, which was mandated by the state and came in at a cost of about $101 million.
In recent years, the job of the county legislators has been made a bit easier because there is increased revenue from the casino, the water park and other new businesses. It’s easier to be generous when the revenue is flowing. But the job becomes much more difficult when times are tough, as they were after the 2008 recession, and county lawmakers had to deal with tough decisions.
In Pennsylvania, counties have much the same responsibilities as counties in NY and those responsibilities are carried out in Pike and Wayne by a board of three commissioners; the commissioners guide rather large bureaucracies through good times and bad.
In both states, other important offices need to be filled, whether judges, coroners or county clerks. The voters get to choose the people who will be responsible for providing some of the most important services to our communities.
It’s important to play a part, to get to the polls, and if you need to, New York now has early voting, so you can vote early at the Board of Elections at the Sullivan County Government Center in Monticello to let your voice be counted.
Democracy should not be a spectator sport. Voter participation is critical to keeping it healthy.