Talk of merging the Syracuse and Onondaga County planning departments first surfaced in the 1960s. For a whole host of reasons — chiefly political fisticuffs between Democrat-controlled City Hall and Republican-dominated county government — it never happened.
Until now, that is.
Democrats still control City Hall and Republicans still dominate county government. What’s different are the approaches of their chief executives, Mayor Stephanie Miner and County Executive Joanie Mahoney. They rightly believe the fates of their communities are inextricable; the city and the county will fail or succeed together. Meanwhile, fiscal realities are forcing them to find better, cheaper and more modern ways of governing.
Perhaps too much has been made of the fact that both leaders are women. Women in power are said to be more collaborative and less territorial than their male counterparts. That may be so, but don’t get carried away with the warm fuzzies. Miner and Mahoney can be as hard-nosed as the next politician. The backbone of their extraordinary collaboration is pragmatism.
First, in 2010, came the sales tax deal, a can of worms opened once a decade. Miner and Mahoney negotiated a split that was favorable to the distressed city and its school district; it passed the county legislature unanimously. Then came Save the Rain, Mahoney’s initiative for managing storm water to stop sewage from overflowing into Onondaga Lake. Mahoney stopped construction of a sewage treatment plant smack in the middle of Armory Square and scheduled 100 Save the Rain projects within city limits. Miner and Mahoney also consolidated the duplicative city and county purchasing and economic development offices.
Now the leaders have set their sights on planning. While the Syracuse-Onondaga County Planning Agency has been around for a long time, its lines of authority were confusing and its processes were cumbersome to property owners.
When the mayor lost federal funding that paid for her Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, she approached Mahoney. They worked out the transfer of three city employees to the county payroll and the appointment of a city employee, Andrew Maxwell, to be director of the agency. Maxwell’s salary will be split between the city and the county.
The office won’t be any cheaper to run, but it will streamline the approval process for the public, and, it is hoped, lead to faster and better decisions. Plus, the solution the mayor and county executive engineered will persist even if their successors don’t get along.
The Onondaga County Legislature voted unanimously last week to approve the plan. The Syracuse Common Council and the state Legislature should follow suit without delay.
The county executive said of the planning merger, “I don’t think it’s the last one.” Mahoney told the editorial board on April 12 that she plans to “take advantage of the fact that there’s a mayor in place who wants to work with the county.”
We like what we see, and urge Miner and Mahoney to forge ahead with more cooperation. So, what’s next?