Local governments were originally created by the state, and were structured, empowered and limited solely and entirely by state law. Home rule for municipalities is the result of a centuries-long struggle for local autonomy.
The movement for Home Rule was led by cities, especially New York City, but later extended to all general purpose local governments. The result, Article IX of the state constitution, elevates the value of local self-governance. More specifically, this provision constrains state government and empowers municipalities – but not school districts or other special purpose districts – when the later are acting in constitutionally specified areas and for constitutionally specified purposes.
By law and practice, there are areas of policy in New York which local control is particularly strong; land use management is an example. But in general when disputes have arisen, New Your Courts, applying the “state concern” doctrine originally enunciated in Adler v Deegan, have favored state power over local autonomy. Even in the area of land use, state environmental law constrains local actions and choices in significant ways. And of course, national requirements, set out for example in the Voting Rights Act, are limiting on localities even in such core discretionary areas as the structuring of local government, where they are otherwise given autonomy by the state constitution.
New York State, acting mostly through New York City and counties outside that city, employs a highly decentralized service delivery system, characterized by extensive requirements, oversight and regulation of local government. Also, and often in accord to meet constitutional directives, the state otherwise mandates local processes or actions. For example, the state constitution requires that all “civil subdivisions” of the state, “including cities and villages” use a “merit and fitness” (civil service) standard in most employment decisions. (Article V section 6) The constitution also makes pension obligations of localities contractual (Article 5 section 7), which along with the exercise of statutory responsibility vested in the state comptroller to administer pension, results under some economic conditions in rapidly increasing “uncontrolled” local costs and, therefore rising property taxes.
Limiting the imposition of costs without the provision of resources has long been a goal of New York’s local governments. (See “Mandates”) Particular circumstances that arise in the course of day-to-day governance regularly bring to the courts decisions that redefine at the margin the extent and limits of local autonomy and state power, or “home rule.” Less attended to, but quite significant in an era in which local government reform is a major concern, is that aspect of home rule in the state constitution that prevents the dissolution of any municipality, or the combination of municipalities, or the transfer of functions between or among municipalities, without the consent of all the affected governments. This has led to the continuation of some local governments that could not meet the conditions for being formed currently set out in law, and the general persistence of 19th century local government arrangements in the 21st century.
For instance, the range of populations in incorporated cities and towns in New York State is staggering. The smallest city, Sherril, has a population of 3,147, while the largest, New York City, has a population of 8,175,133. The largest town, Hempstead, has a population of 759,757, while the smallest town, Red House has a population of 38. There have been proposals such as the ones suggested in a 2006 report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller entitled: Outdated Municipal Structures: Cities, towns and villages – 18th Century Designations for 21st Century Communities that suggest that a reclassification of municipalities could allow for more flexibility in governance, better delivery of services, more equitable distribution of municipal aid, a decrease in overlapping functions, and the ability to create governance structures that better reflect the size, demographics, and nature of the municipalities in New York State.
Home Rule has also been a barrier, many believe, to reallocation of local functions to achieve greater efficiency. New York State has the largest number of assessing jurisdictions in the nation. Making real property assessment a county rather than a town or village function is an example of a shfit of locl function that is often cited as desireable by reformers. (Nassau and Tompkin's are the only counties in New York state in which assessment is a county function..)
Section 1. Effective local self-government and intergovernmental cooperation are purposes of the people of the state. In furtherance thereof, local governments shall have the following rights, powers, privileges and immunities in addition to those granted by other provisions of this constitution:
(a) Every local government, except a county wholly included within a city, shall have a legislative body...have power to adopt local laws...
(b) All officers of every local government whose election or appointment is not provided for by this constitution shall be elected by the people of the local government, or of some division thereof, or appointed by such officers of the local government as may be provided by law.
(d) No local government or any part of the territory thereof shall be annexed to another until the people, if any, of the territory proposed to be annexed shall have consented thereto
(h) (1) Counties, other than those wholly included within a city, shall be empowered by general law, or by special law enacted upon county request pursuant to section two of this article, to adopt, amend or repeal alternative forms of county government provided by the legislature or to prepare, adopt, amend or repeal alternative forms ...
§2. (a) The legislature shall provide for the creation and organization of local governments in such manner as shall secure to them the rights, powers, privileges and immunities granted to them by this constitution.
(b) ... the legislature:
(l) Shall enact, and may from time to time amend, a statute of local governments granting to local governments powers including but not limited to those of local legislation and administration ...
(c) ... (i) every local government shall have power to adopt and amend local laws not inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution or any general law relating to its property, affairs or government and,
(l) The powers, duties, qualifications, number, mode of selection and removal, terms of office, compensation, hours of work, protection, welfare and safety of its officers and employees
7 states provide for Home Rule by Statute: AK, DE, IN, MA, NC, NJ, NV