Political subdivisions of New York State
The administrative divisions of New York are the various units of government that provide local government services in the state of New York. The state is divided into counties, cities, towns, and villages, which are all municipal corporations with their own government that provide most local government services. New York also has various corporate entities that serve single purposes that are also local governments, such as school and fire districts. Whether a municipality is defined as a city, town, or village is not dependent on population or land area, but rather by the form of government selected by the residents and approved by the state legislature. Each such government is granted varying home rule powers as provided by the New York Constitution.
- 1 Home rule
- 2 County
- 3 City
- 4 Town
- 5 Village
- 6 Divisions unique to New York City
- 7 Special purpose units of government
- 7.1 School district
- 7.2 Fire district
- 7.3 Fire protection district
- 7.4 Public benefit corporation/authority
- 7.5 Library district
- 7.6 Other types of special purpose units
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
- 11 Further reading
Incorporated municipal governments (also known as "general purpose units of local government"; i.e., counties, cities, towns and villages) in New York State have been granted broad home rule powers enabling them to provide services to their residents and to regulate the quality of life within their jurisdictions. They do so while adhering to the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York. Articles IX (titled "Local Government", but commonly referred to as the "Home Rule" article) and VIII (titled "Local Finances") of the state constitution establish the rights and responsibilities of the municipal governments.
The New York State Constitution provides for democratically elected legislative bodies for counties, cities, towns and villages. These legislative bodies are granted the power to enact local laws as needed in order to provide services to their citizens and fulfill their various obligations.
The county is the primary administrative division of New York. There are sixty-two counties in the state. Five of the counties are boroughs of the city of New York and do not have functioning county governments. While originally created as subdivisions of the state meant to carry out state functions, counties are now considered municipal corporations with the power and fiscal capacity to provide an array of local government services. Such services generally include law enforcement and public safety, social and health services (such as Medicaid), and education (special needs and community colleges).
A majority of New York's counties operate under the general provisions of the County Law. Nineteen counties have County Charters. Although all counties have a certain latitude to govern themselves, "charter counties" are afforded greater home rule powers. The charter counties are Albany, Broome, Chautauqua, Chemung, Dutchess, Erie, Herkimer, Monroe, Nassau, Oneida, Onondaga, Orange, Putnam, Rensselaer, Rockland, Schenectady, Suffolk, Tompkins, and Westchester.
In some counties, the legislature is the Board of Supervisors, composed of town and city supervisors of its constituent towns and cities. In most of these counties, each supervisor's vote is weighted in accordance with the town's population in order to abide by the principle of "one person, one vote". Other counties have legislative districts of equal population which may cross municipal borders, these counties also have an elected County Executive. Some counties do not use the term "Board of Supervisors", but instead call their legislative body "Board of Representatives", "Board of Legislators," or "County Legislature".
In non-charter counties, the legislative body exercises executive power as well. Although the legislature can delegate certain functions and duties to a county administrator, who acts on behalf of the legislature, the legislature must maintain ultimate control over the actions of the administrator. Many, but not all, charter counties have an elected executive who is independent of the legislature; the exact form of government is defined in the County Charter.
In New York, each city is a highly autonomous incorporated area that, with the exceptions of New York City and Geneva, is contained within one county. Cities in New York are classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as incorporated places. They provide almost all services to their residents and have the highest degree of home rule and taxing jurisdiction over their residents. The main difference between a city and a village is that cities are organized and governed according to their charters, which can differ widely among cities, while most villages are subject to a uniform statewide Village Law (twelve villages still operate under charters issued by the state legislature prior to a revision of the State Constitution in 1874 that forbade chartering villages). Also, villages are part of a town (or towns; some villages cross town borders), with residents who pay taxes to and receive services from the town. Cities are neither part of nor subordinate to towns except for the city of Sherrill, which for some purposes is treated as if it were a village of the town of Vernon. Some cities are completely surrounded by a town, typically of the same name.
There are sixty-two cities in the state. As of 2000, 54.1% of state residents were living in a city; 42.2% were living in New York City; 11.9% were living in one of the other 61 cities. In 1686, the English colonial governor granted the cities of New York and Albany city charters, which were recognized by the first State Constitution in 1777. All other cities have been established by act of the state legislature and have been granted a charter. Cities have been granted the power to revise their charters or adopt new ones. There are no minimum population or area requirements in order to become a city. While there is no defined process for how and when a village becomes a city, the Legislature requires clear evidence, usually in the form of a locally drafted charter, that the community in question seeks to incorporate as a city.
The forms of government cities can have are council-manager, strong mayor-council, weak mayor-council or commission. Forty-six cities, the majority, use the mayor-council form.
- Strong mayor-council — An elective mayor serves as the chief executive and administrative head of the city. A city council serves as a legislature. The mayor has veto power over council decisions, prepares a budget, and appoints and removes agency heads. This form sometimes includes a professional administrator appointed by the mayor.
- Weak mayor-council — The mayor is a ceremonial figure. The city council serves as both a legislature and executive committee. There is generally no mayoral veto.
- Council-manager — The mayor, if such a position exists, is ceremonial only. A professional administrator, appointed by the city council, serves as the administrative head. While empowered to appoint and remove agency heads and responsible for preparing a budget, the administrator does not have veto power. The city council serves as the legislature.
- Commission — Elected commissioners administer individual city departments and together act as a legislature. This form sometimes includes an administrator. There is no mayor, although commissioners sometimes assume mayoral ceremonial duties.
The city of New York is a special case. The state legislature reorganized government in the area in the 1890s in an effort to consolidate. Other cities, villages, and towns were annexed to become the "City of Greater New York", (an unofficial term, the new city retained the name of New York), a process basically completed in 1898. At the time of consolidation, Queens County was split. Its western towns joined the city, leaving three towns that were never part of the consolidation plan as part of Queens County but not part of the new Borough of Queens. (A small portion of the Town of Hempstead was itself annexed, also.) The next year (1899), the three eastern towns of Queens County separated to become Nassau County. The city today consists of the entire area of five counties (named New York, Kings, Queens, Bronx, and Richmond). While these counties have no county government, boroughs — with boundaries coterminous with the county boundaries — each have a Borough Board made up of the Borough President, the borough's district council members, and the chairpersons of the borough's community boards. A mayor serves as the city's chief executive officer.
The most populous and largest city in the state is New York City, with a population of over 8.2 million inhabitants and comprising just over 300 sq mi (777.00 km2) of land (468.87 sq mi (1,214.368 km2) total area, which includes water). The least populous city is Sherrill, New York, with just 3,147 inhabitants in 2000. The smallest city by area is Mechanicville, New York, which covers 0.91 sq mi (2.4 km2) (of which 0.08 sq mi (0.2 km2) is water).
Towns can vary greatly in many characteristics,
as shown here.
In New York, a town is the major division of each county (excluding the five counties that comprise New York City), very similar to townships in other states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Towns in New York are classified by the U.S. Census Bureau as minor civil divisions. All residents of New York who do not live in a city or on an Indian reservation live in a town. Towns provide or arrange for the primary functions of local government. While some provide most municipal services for all town residents and selected services for residents of villages, some provide little more than road maintenance. There are 932 towns in New York. As of 2000, 45.8% of state residents were living in a town; 35.9% were living in a town but outside of a village. Whereas cities and villages can cross county boundaries, all towns in New York are within a single county.
New York towns are classified by statute as being a town of the first class or a town of the second class. Additionally, a town of the first class can further be classified as a suburban town upon meeting certain criteria. Originally, towns of different classes possessed different powers. Since 1964, all towns, regardless of classification, have had the same legal powers as was once available only to suburban towns. Even so, towns of different classifications continue to have organizational differences and certain conditions that must be met before a town's classification changes.
The town board serves as the legislative branch. The board is composed of one elected supervisor (or chief executive officer in suburban towns) and a specific number of elected council persons; towns of the second class generally have two but may have four council persons, whereas towns of the first class generally have four but can have two or six. The supervisor presides over the board, voting on all matters but not possessing veto or tie-breaking power. Certain towns operate under a town manager form of government, as permitted by legislation enacted in 1976. All town justices were originally part of a town's board. Today, justices belong to a separate judicial branch known as Town Court or Justice Court, part of New York's Justice Court system.
A town may contain one or more villages. Five towns are coterminous with their single village: Green Island in Albany County; East Rochester in Monroe County; and Scarsdale, Harrison and Mount Kisco in Westchester County. When such an entity is formed, officials from either unit of government may serve in both village and town governments simultaneously. A referendum is held to decide whether residents prefer a village-style or town-style government, which will then function primarily as a village or town but will perform some of the functions of the other form.
Towns can contain several hamlets and communities. If the United States Postal Service (USPS) has a post office in a hamlet it often will use the name of that hamlet, as will the local fire department or elementary school. Businesses may also use the name of a hamlet as part of their name. The United States Census Bureau will, with consideration from the town, designate a Census Designated Place (CDP) that may use the name of one or more hamlets, though boundaries may differ from what is used by the ZIP code, local fire department, etc.
Towns in New York may be further subdivided into wards, although as of 2013, only eleven of the state's 932 towns used this system. In towns operating under the ward system, citizens vote for councilmen who represent a specific area (ward) of the town, as opposed to the at-large councilmen elected in the majority of the state's towns.
Towns vary in size and population. The largest town by area is Brookhaven (Suffolk County), which covers 531.5 sq mi (1,377 km2), but more than half of that is water. The town of Webb (Herkimer County) has the greatest land area, at 451 sq mi (1,170 km2). The smallest town, Green Island (Albany County), covers 0.7 sq mi (1.8 km2). The town of Hempstead (Nassau County) has about 756,000 people (2000 census), making it more populous than any city in the state except New York City. Red House (Cattaraugus County), the least populous, has 38 permanent residents (2000 census).
The use of "town" in a community's name is irrespective of municipal status. Elizabethtown, Germantown and Stephentown are towns. Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, is a village, Jamestown is a city, and Levittown an unincorporated hamlet.
A census-designated place (CDP) is defined by the United States Census Bureau as "a statistical entity defined for each decennial census according to Census Bureau guidelines, comprising a densely settled concentration of population..." that is not part of a city or a village "...but is locally identified by a name." CDPs may cross town and county borders. CDPs are defined collaboratively by state and local officials and the Census Bureau. They are defined for each census, and it is commonplace to change boundaries and define new CDPs for each census.
The Census Bureau formerly referred to CDPs as "unincorporated places" from 1950 through the 1970 decennial censuses. The term CDP was first used for the 1980 census, and minimum population criteria for CDPs were dropped with the 2000 Census.
Though the term "hamlet" is not defined under New York law, many people in the state use the term hamlet to refer to a community within a town that is not incorporated as a village but is identified by a name. Hamlets often have names corresponding to the names of a local school district, post office, or fire district. Because a hamlet has no government of its own, it depends upon the town or towns that contain it for municipal services and government.
Suffolk County publishes maps that give hamlet boundaries, but towns within the county also publish maps that conflict both in the number of hamlets and their boundaries. Nevertheless, all land not within a village is administered by the town. Most of the rest of New York's hamlets, however, have less defined boundaries, and most towns have areas that are not considered to be a part of any hamlet. The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) puts hamlet names on rectangular green signs with white lettering at roadside locations of its choosing. The NYSDOT and local governments also provide community identification signs on some scenic byways to be placed at the roadside boundaries of hamlets, as decided by the sign provider. Many towns have special zoning or planning districts and planning strategies for their hamlets, and many place welcome signs at the gateways to the hamlets.
The New York State Gazetteer, published by the New York State Department of Health in 1995, includes a list of hamlets in the state. The criteria used for inclusion in the Gazetteer are not stated.
The Adirondack Park Agency also uses the term "hamlet", though as a land use classification for private land under its Adirondack Park Land Use and Development Plan (APLUDP). The APLUDP extends the boundaries for its classification of hamlets "well beyond established settlements" to allow for growth.
In New York, a village is an incorporated area, about 85% of which fall within a single town. Villages in New York State are classified by the Census Bureau as incorporated places. Like all municipal corporations, villages have clearly defined legal boundaries. A village is a municipality that provides the services closest to the residents, which may or may not include garbage collection, management of cemeteries, street and highway maintenance, street lighting, and building codes. Some villages provide their own police and other municipal services. Villages have less autonomy than cities. Those services not provided by the village are provided by the town or towns containing the village. As of the 2000 census, 9.9% of the state's population was living in one of the 556 villages in New York.
The legislature of a village is the board of trustees, composed of a mayor and (usually) four trustees. The board is responsible for approving mayoral appointments, managing village finances and property, and approving a budget. The mayor, who is generally the chief executive of the village, may vote in all business before the board and must vote to break a tie. The mayor generally does not possess veto power, unless this is provided for by local law. Administrative duties of the mayor include enforcing laws and supervising employees. A village may also have a full-time village manager, who performs these administrative duties instead of the mayor. In 2007, sixty-seven villages had such a manager. Some villages have their own village justice, while others utilize the justice of the town or towns in which they are located.
While most villages are subject to a uniform statewide Village Law, twelve villages operate under charters issued by the state legislature prior to 1874. Before a revision to the State Constitution in that year, villages were formed by the state legislature through granting of charters. Many villages reincorporated, dumping their charters in favor of the Village Law. The villages that retain their charters are Alexander, Carthage, Catskill, Cooperstown, Deposit, Fredonia, Ilion, Mohawk, Ossining, Owego, Port Chester, and Waterford. These villages must still comply with those aspects of Village Law that are not inconsistent with their charters.
To be incorporated, the area of the proposed village must have at least 500 inhabitants and not be part of an existing city or village. Additionally, the proposed village can be no more than 5 square miles (13 km²) in area unless its boundaries are to be coterminous with a school, fire, improvement or other district, or the entire town. The process of incorporation begins with a petition by either 20% of residents or owners of 50% of assessed real property. If deemed legally sufficient, incorporation is then voted upon by the qualified voters living in the proposed village only. Some villages have fewer than 500 residents, having incorporated before the present population requirement of 500.Template:Or For example, the village of West Hampton Dunes, formed in 1993, has a 2000 Census population of only 11.
A village may also be dissolved, returning all government control to the town level. The process of dissolution can be initiated by the village board itself, or upon the submission of a proper petition to the board. The village board must produce a "dissolution plan" that settles specific matters, such as the village's debts, its employees and property, and the financial impact dissolution would have on village and non-village town residents. This plan is voted upon by village voters only.
About 15% of villages cross other municipal boundaries. More than 70 villages are located in two or more towns. Seven villages are in two counties. The village of Saranac Lake is in three towns and two counties.
Divisions unique to New York City
A borough is a division of the city of New York and not the state, or of any other city in the state.[dubious ] Each of the five boroughs of the city is coextensive with one of its five counties. Under the General Municipal Law of the State of New York, a borough results when the towns, villages and cities in a county merge with the county itself.
- The Bronx (Bronx County)
- Brooklyn (Kings County)
- Manhattan (New York County)
- Queens (Queens County)
- Staten Island (Richmond County)
The boroughs were originally intended to retain some local governance in the consolidated city that was formed in 1898. Each borough individually elects a borough president. The borough presidents once wielded considerable power as members of the New York City Board of Estimate, but the position is now largely ceremonial and advisory. Likewise, the boroughs and their residents have little distinct power within the city. "The five boroughs of the City of New York function as counties for certain purposes, although they are not organized as such nor do they operate as county governments."
A distinctive feature of a typical county retained by New York boroughs is the election of a separate district attorney for each borough. Each of the five New York City district attorneys prosecutes crimes in the name of the county rather than the name of the borough (for example, the district attorney for the borough of Brooklyn is called the Kings County District Attorney).
The fifty-nine community districts in New York City, each represented by an appointed advisory group called a community board. Each board consists of fifty unpaid members appointed by the borough president. Half of the members are nominated by the City Council members who represent the area. The power of the community boards is very limited. They serve in an advisory capacity regarding land use and zoning, budget and various concerns of the community. The boards can recommend action on the part of the city government, but they cannot enforce it. Each is identified by borough name and a number (e.g. Manhattan Community Board 3).
Special purpose units of government
In New York, special purpose units of government provide specialized services only to those who live in the district, and are empowered to tax residents of the district for the services provided in common. Special districts often cross the lines of towns, villages, and hamlets, and occasionally cities or counties.
School districts are the most common kind of special district in New York. They provide, arrange, or contract for all public education services, including special education and school transportation, the latter also for non-public schools.
School districts are rarely precisely coextensive with the cities, towns, villages, or hamlets that bear the same name, meaning that a person living in one hamlet or village might send their children to a school associated with a different hamlet or village. Residents pay school taxes to the same school district in which they live and any children living with them attend school. All tax-paying residents are eligible for the STAR Program tax rebate which in effect lessens the value of an individual's primary residence to lessen the tax burden on the residence.
All but five school districts are separate from municipal governments. The exceptions are the five cities whose populations exceed 125,000 (Buffalo, New York, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers), in which education is part of the municipal budget.
Schools in the city of New York are controlled by the New York City Department of Education, and the city is divided by the department into 11 "school regions" (10 geographic regions and a "District 75" for students with disabilities)
There are five types of school districts in the state, each with slightly different laws.
Common school district
Common school districts, established in 1812, were the first type of school district in the state. In July 2004, there were only 11 such districts remaining. They are not authorized to provide secondary education. They must, therefore, contract with neighboring school districts to provide high school education for pupils in the district. Typically one trustee or a three person board of trustees will govern the district.
Union free school district
In 1853, the Legislature established union free school districts, which are districts resulting from a "union" of two or more common school districts, "free" from the restrictions that previously barred them from operating high schools. In July 2004, there were 163 school districts of this type. Despite being able to operate high schools, thirty-one of these districts provided only elementary education. Those districts that are not components of central school districts provide secondary education by contracting with other districts. Each union free school district is governed by a three- to nine-member board of education.
Central school district
Not to be confused with central high school districts, central school districts are the most prevalent type of school district in New York. In July 2004, there were 460 such districts. They began as a result of legislation in 1914. Central school districts may form from any number (including one) of common, union free, and/or central school districts. Central school districts are permitted to provide secondary education. Its board of education must consist of five, seven, or nine members and length of service must be three, four, or five years, each decided upon by the voters in the district.
Central high school district
There are only three central high school districts in New York state, all in Nassau County (Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, Sewanhaka Central High School District, and Valley Stream Central High School District). Central high school districts provide secondary education to students in two or more common or union free districts. With creation authorized by the legislature in 1917 and repealed in 1944, creation was reauthorized exclusively for Suffolk County in 1981. Such districts already established were not affected by the repeal.
City school district
In those cities with populations exceeding 125,000 (New York City, Buffalo, Yonkers, Rochester, and Syracuse), the city school districts are coterminous with the city limits, and education is part of the municipal budget. These districts cannot incur debts or levy taxes. The governmental structure in all of these except for New York is that of an elected or appointed board of education. New York's public education is headed by a chancellor and has a 13-member all-appointed Department of Education Panel for Education Policy.
The city school districts for the 57 cities having fewer than 125,000 people are separate from the municipal government and are authorized to levy taxes and incur debt. Each of them is governed by an elected board of education with five, seven, or nine members. Districts for smaller cities often extend beyond the city borders and are referred to as "enlarged city school districts", seven of which have reorganized as "central city school districts".
Supervisory school district
Owing to the extremely large number (730) of school districts, many of which are quite small, most of them are organized into 37 supervisory districts. Each of these has a Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). Each BOCES provides services which are considered difficult for the member school districts to provide on their own, often including special classes for students with disabilities.
Fire districts are public corporations which generally provide fire protection and other emergency response in towns outside villages. A fire district can levy taxes and incur debt just like other general purpose municipal corporations, although fire districts do not have home rule powers and the taxes are generally collected by the town or towns that the district serves. Fire districts depend on their towns for initial establishment, expansion of district territory, and dissolution, but are otherwise thereafter autonomous political entities able to exercise only those specific powers granted to them by statute. The district is governed by a board of elected commissioners.
Villages generally provide their own fire protection, but joint town-village fire districts are permitted. A Joint Fire District is a fire district that encompasses more than one town, wholly or in part, and may also include a village. This is some times done to reduce duplication of services in a small area or to help spread the tax burden when there is a large difference in tax base between neighboring towns. A joint fire district may also be formed when a fire department in a village that has fire protection districts in the surrounding towns separates itself from the village government to obtain greater self-governance. This was seen in 2003 when the fire department in the village of Baldwinsville formed a joint fire district consisting of the village of Baldwinsville and parts of the towns of Lysander and Van Buren in Onondaga County.
There were 868 fire districts in New York at the end of 2003.
Fire protection district
A fire protection district is established by a town board in order to contract fire protection services with any city, village, fire district or incorporated fire company.
Public benefit corporations in New York operate like quasi-private corporations, generally with boards appointed by elected officials. They are a form of government bureaucracy in one sense but, unlike government agencies, public benefit corporations are exempt from some regulations. Of particular importance, they can take out their own debt, allowing them to bypass legal limits on state debt. This allows them to make potentially risky capital and infrastructure investments without putting so much of the credit of New York on the line. However, it also allows them to avoid many of the oversight and reporting regulations which apply to state government.
Public benefit corporations get charters from New York and are usually designed to perform a specific, narrow function in the public interest. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority manages public transportation in the New York Metropolitan Area (this includes the New York Subway and public bus systems, as well as Metro-North Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority). The New York State Thruway Authority originally only maintained the New York State Thruway from New York City to the Pennsylvania border southwest of Buffalo, but due to budgetary maneuvering, now maintains the toll-free Interstate 84 corridor, and the New York State Barge Canal. Many regions also have authorities to manage their local public transportation such as the Central New York Regional Transportation Authority, which manages much of the public transportation in and around Syracuse; and the Capital District Transportation Authority for the Capital District area around Albany, Schenectady, Troy, and Saratoga Springs.
Library districts are usually coextensive with the same school district but raise taxes separately and serve all the residents of the library district. They often form cooperative associations with other library districts for shared services, purchasing and cross-library lending.
Other types of special purpose units
Other special districts may include emergency rescue squads (also known as Consolidated Health Districts), sanitation, police, water, sewer, park, and parking.
- Local government
- Political divisions of the United States
- Timeline of town creation in New York's Capital District
General local government information
- MB, from N.Y.S. Dept. of State)
- Division of Local Government, Department of State
- Citizen's Access to Local Government — links to N.Y.S. local govt. Web sites
New York State Constitution
The articles of the external link) which most closely affect local government are:
- Article VIII: Local Finances
- Article IX: Local Governments
New York State Consolidated Laws
The New York State Consolidated Laws  which most closely affect local government are
- General Municipal Law
- Village Law
- University at Buffalo)
- Census Bureau map of N.Y.S. municipalities and CDPs (PDF, 2.71 MB)
- New York State Association of Counties
- New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials
- Association of Towns of the State of New York
- New York State County Formation Map
- William Carey Morey, The Government of New York: Its History and Administration, (Macmillan company, 1902)
- Frank David Boynton, Actual Government of New York: A Manual of the Local, Municipal, State and Federal Government for Use in Public and Private Schools of New York State, (Ginn and Co., 1918)
- Robert Lansing and Gary M. Jones, The Government and Civil Institutions of New York State, (Silver, Burdett and company, 1903)