City, town or village?

colonie town hall

Colonie Town Hall

After we posted Monday about Colonie being named the "safest" city in the country in an annual crime ranking, Jackers pointed out in the comments:

Colonie is not a city. There's a town, and a village, but no city.

He is, of course, correct. We would argue it doesn't make much difference in this context. The list ranks areas of local jurisdiction with populations larger than 75,000 -- it doesn't really matter what you call them (whether it makes sense to rank municipalities in this way is a whole other, worthwhile discussion). But substituting "municipality" for "city" would make the sentence more accurate.

This got us wondering about what exactly differentiates a city from a town in New York State. So we looked it up.

The state actually has a book about all this stuff. It's called -- surprise -- The Local Government Handbook. It's published by the NY Department of State. We pulled all the info for this post out of that publication.

First, the basics: counties, cities, towns and villages are "general purpose public corporations" that have "broad legislative powers as well as the power to tax and incur debt." New York State law requires that these entities have legislative bodies elected by the people in those municipalities.

The very short story

OK, here are the (very simplified) characteristics of cities, towns and villages:

+ No minimum size or population
+ Not in a town
+ Charter says it's a city
+ Has a mayor (usually)

+ Come in all sizes and populations
+ Everything that's not a city or Indian nation land
+ Has a supervisor instead of a mayor. Supervisors aren't really executives -- they're the presiding officers of the town boards.
+ Can establish localized taxing districts inside them to provide fire, sewage and other services.

+ Small (well, they start that way)
+ Part of towns

The somewhat longer version

There's no state law that sets a minimum size (physical or population) for a city. In fact, what mostly distinguishes a city from a village is that a) it's not in a town and b) its charter says it's a city.

The state legislature can incorporate any size municipality into a city -- though, as The Local Government Handbook notes, this doesn't happen "without clear evidence from a local community that its people desire incorporation."

Towns are pretty much everything that's not a city or Indian nation land. The LGH notes that town government in New York State has roots that stretch all the back to Dutch rule. And for a while they were considered more a form of municipal negative space than actual municipalities. They didn't get official "home rule" powers until 1964 and weren't really on footing more or less equal with cities until 1976.

Consequently, towns come in all sorts of populations and areas. The Town of Hempstead on Long Island has more than 750k people and the Town of Redhouse in Cattaraugus County has... 37 people. The Town of Webb in Herkimer County covers 451.2 square miles (bigger than many counties) and the Town of Green Island covers just 0.7 square miles.

There are different types of towns -- "first class," "second class," "suburban" -- but apparently the differences between the classes have largely dissolved.

The big difference between cities and towns is how leadership is organized. Cities have mayors (in most cases). Towns do not. Instead, they have supervisors, who are the presiding officers on the town boards.

Towns also have the ability to set up taxing districts inside them for fire, sewage and other services. These districts provide flexibility in meeting localized needs within the town.

The super short story on villages: they're small and they're part of towns.

All of these designations come with all sorts of exceptions and qualifications. This is New York, after all -- you knew it wasn't going to be simple.

photo: UpstateNYer / Wikipedia

The Bottom Line

The grossly simplified version: cities and towns differ on how their leaderships are organized and some aspects of how they organize tax collection. The designations don't mean anything with regard to population or area.


Couple of other interesting things, using Saratoga County as an example.

It's cities and towns that elect supervisors, who then represent the municipality on the county board. In terms of county government, then, cities and towns are peers.

In Saratoga County there are two cities (Mechanicville, Saratoga Springs) and nineteen towns (Ballston, Charlton, Clifton Park, Corinth, Day, Edinburg, Galway, Greenfield, Hadley, Halfmoon, Malta, Milton, Moreau, Northumberland, Providence, Saratoga, Stillwater, Waterford, Wilton). This might make you think that there are twenty-one supervisors on the county board, but there are actually twenty-three: because of population, the City of Saratoga Springs and the Town of Clifton Park each send two supervisors to the county board.

So, the elected county government is a legislature, the Board of Supervisors. There is no executive. Certain other county administrative posts may be elected offices, such as District Attorney and Sheriff, sometimes judges.

(The term "supervisor" is also used in some forms of town government, which can confuse things. The leader of a town council, for example, may be called the Supervisor. This is potentially not the same Supervisor as represents the town in county government.)

Villages seem like sub-units of towns, but they're not. The Village of Ballston Spa is partly in Ballston and partly in Milton.


Towns are basically subdivisions of counties. In many states (particularly Western) where NY has towns there would be no municipal government and the County would be responsible for all services outside cities and villages. So the only reason Colonie is even eligible is because we have these archaic extra layers of government in New York. If all states suddenly adopted our "Town" structure and divided all the unincorporated ares of their counties into towns, there would likely be more Towns like Colonie. Large clumps of suburbs tied together in some barely-logical way. And the crime rates would probably be similar.

From a cultural standpoint (as opposed to governmental) it's just a 'burb. I don't see why a suburb would be considered in a ranking separate from its metro, but that's just me. For example, they chose a methodology that looked at (very few) significant factors and legal rather than community boundaries. They completely ignored the rising teen drug problem, which is a factor in why many parents choose to live further out in more distant (irrelevant to the survey) suburbs that are actually even safer for their children. It also slants the results in that there are other cities around the countries with suburbs just like Colonie, even safer, yet not counted because those suburbs' municipal boundaries included their metro's urban/higher crime areas. If Colonie were lumped in with its zip code-mates, the results would have been middle of the pack.

Not to knock Colonie, congrats on the ranking, but there are other suburbs across the country, and other cities where I could find a neighborhood that make Colonie seem dangerous. That's not Colonie's problem, it's the chosen methodology of the survey group.

Political geography may just be my most favoritist subject in the world. For added fun let's throw another one in, Hamlets (e.g. Slingerlands, Delmar, Latham, Loudonville). In NY hamlets are unincorporated and undemarcated places. They can't tax, have debt, or do just about anything cause they don't even really exist beyond a reference point on a map and the names of the local post office and delis. You can't even really say when you have technically left one hamlet or entered another cause they have no borders. There are however exceptions, such as Delmar, which is also CDP (census–designated places). CDPs are identified and given borders by the United States Census Bureau for statistical purposes. It’s all very fun and fascinating stuff if your total dork loser who spends too much time on wikipedia.

Oh, and to comment on the aforementioned post. Thing is it does make a difference. Cause yeah, colonie has over 75,000 people but it's over a geographical area that's almost three times as large as Albany. That means it's way less densly populated. And I would argue that the density of the population is far more reflective of the kind of socio-economic factors that effect crime rates than just total population overall.

Get this: Green Island is both a town and a village. And their boundaries are geographically identical. It's called a coterminous town and village, one of five in New York State. The Town has a supervisor and a town board and the Village has a mayor and a village board. The entire town/village is less than one square mile in size.

This gets to a reason why property taxes are out of control -- we have so many duplicative levels with taxing authority. Fire and school districts within villages within towns within counties! In 2009 NYS is stumbling forward with a local government system designed for the 1800s.

This is the prime reason why NY has such high property taxes. The multiple levels of governments. NY would be better off if it adopted what they do out west or south, only have a county or city level style of local government. Even consolidated city-county governments could work. For example, take Schenectady County, what if the city and county merged and all of the town governments were abolished. You would then have more streamlined local services.
Of course, the problem being is that when given the opportunity to lessen the taxpayer's burden, the taxpayer doesn't want to see their government being abolished cause they may lose that "local identity".
I don't think sharing of services really helps either as you just preserve the same governments, so you still have duplicate services somewhere. And with multiple governments, you have competition for grants and federal and state funds, where if you had one single local government, you can pool your money and get better things, rather than have the same small stuff for areas that are just the same.
This recession is a prime time to consolidate local governments and streamline services.

There are other differences as well. For example, state and US highways in Colonie (ie. Central Avenue, Troy-Schenectady Road, etc) are built and maintained by the NY State Department of Transportation. Many roads are also maintained by the county.

Once you cross the city border, however, all state/county responsibility stops. City governments are required to perform such maintenance themselves.

There are other differences as well, resulting from the slow exodus of people from cities to suburbs, particularly in Long Island.

I always wondered why Menands was considered a city and Colonie a town. I always figured Menands was only a city because it was chartered as such way back in the day. I guess I was sort of right, but I had no idea population wasn't a factor. Thanks for clearing that up AOA.

So, what's with Loudonville, Newtonville, Latham, etc. then?

Summer- Menands is note a city. It's a Village, located entirely within Colonie.

@Allison They're hamlets. Look at my previous comment.

@Geepers: Isn't there a sign somewhere, perhaps along 787, that says "City of Menands?" Or am I out of my mind?

@Geepers: Bingo!


On another point, this is the same group that says El Paso, TX is the safest large city in the US. That alone, for anyone familiar with their problems stemming largely from the border drug cartel crimes, would completely discredit their methodology.

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