Benjamin, Gerald. 1990. "The Evolution of New York State's Local Government System." Albany, NY: Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.
This article explains the evolutionary development of four categories of local governments in New York State: counties, towns, cities, and villages. These local entities differ in their origins and have undergone changes throughout the state's history, particularly in their governmental structure and functions. In response to the growth and diversity of population, direct democracy in rural areas gave way to representative system and the executive power in urban areas tended to separate from legislative or judicial functions.
New York's 62 counties were originally created by the state for its own administrative convenience. They were just agents of state rather than municipal corporations. As the population grew, uniform state law was increasingly inadequate to meet the needs of burgeoning suburban areas. The legislature in 1935 made significant changes to extend counties' powers as municipal corporations. Since then, counties have gone more rapidly toward greater power and autonomy. As a result, The Municipal Home Rule Law was adopted in 1963. By the law, most counties generally came to adopt charters and to have an elected executive or appointed manager, separately from the state.
Towns, like counties, were also involuntary in their birth. All territories in a county are divided into towns. Towns, therefore, exercised little self-rule and were controlled by counties. As population grew, particularly in suburban towns, pressure continued for extending the powers of town government. The town meeting diminished and town boards and supervisors grew in importance. The more populated towns were often changed into villages. Since the 1920s, the powers of first-class towns were as extensive those of villages. Town governments regulated land use, built highways, provided police, and regulated all sorts of public behaviors by town laws. In 1976, general provision was made for towns to adopt a manager system of government. There are 932 towns in New York.
Cities, differently from counties and towns, were created as public corporations to meet special local needs. The power of each city derives from a unique statute. Cities are not organs of the state. Generalization about cities, however, becomes more difficult than other entities, because of their unique charter and special needs. Moreover, their substantial powers and structures even among the current 41 cities vary considerably, even though most of them have mayor-council systems.
Village governments have far more powers than towns, as extensive as those of early cities. The growth of the autonomy and power seems to be like those of cities. There are currently 556 villages in New York State. Most villages were chartered before the early twentieth century.
The four types of local governments have been converging incrementally in their structure and powers since the Civil War, increasing their similarities while diminishing their differences.