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City leaders to debate the future of Syracuse, Onondaga government Wednesday night

Zach Barlow | Staff Photographer

The debate will start at 7 p.m. in Syracuse University’s Maxwell Auditorium and will be moderated by Grant Reeher, political science professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Syracuse leaders are expected to debate on Wednesday night over whether to move forward with a citizen group’s recommendation to merge the city of Syracuse and Onondaga County governments.

James Walsh, a former congressman who represented the 25th Congressional District and government affairs counselor at K & L Gates LLP, and William Byrne, chairman of the board of Byrne Dairy, will debate with Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and Onondaga County Comptroller Robert Antonacci, who both oppose the Syracuse-Onondaga government merger. Walsh and Byrne will argue in favor of the merger.

The debate will start at 7 p.m. in Syracuse University’s Maxwell Auditorium and will be moderated by Grant Reeher, political science professor at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The audience members will be able to ask questions and vote on the issue before and after the debate.

The debate marks a rare opportunity where both sides of the merger problem will debate face-to-face over the highly politicized issue. Consensus, the citizen group composed of 19 legislators and community leaders, published a series of recommendations in February calling for government consolidation and laying out plans for saving funds in 16 categories — including law enforcement, courts and economic development.

The 112-page final recommendation report proposed that the city and county governments be combined into one legislative body with 33 legislators. The legislative body would be composed of 29 districts and four at-large representatives. Nine out of the 29 districts would be drawn in combined, city-suburb “hybrid” districts.

The report highlights that the city-county consolidation could generate savings between $8.7 and $22.9 million a year. Supporters of the merger affirm its effort to alleviate Syracuse’s dire fiscal state, which includes a $12.1 million budget deficit in 2016-17 fiscal year.

For the merger to proceed, the recommendation proposes a plan to hold a referendum to be held this year and for the consolidation transition to begin in 2018.

But Linda Ervin, floor leader and representative for the Onondaga County Legislature’s 17th district, dismissed that the legislature could approve a referendum this year on grounds of feasibility.

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney has thrown in her support to advance the merger effort. During her State of the County address, Mahoney argued that there is “not a single thing” in the Consensus report that will “spell disaster for anyone,” and that people should see it as an opportunity rather than as a threat.

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo appropriated $500 million for the central New York region in his 2015 Upstate Revitalization Initiative to support Consensus’ work. He also has proposed a plan to require county executives or county managers to submit a plan addressing reduction of government service duplicates and property-tax savings to respective county legislatures by Aug. 1.

Opponents, including some Syracuse residents and Miner, argue the consolidation would gut city representation in a new city-county government, and that county residents would have substantial power over city residents and control decision-making.

During a press conference in February, Miner shredded the merger recommendation and called it “the worst form of corporate looting.”

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