NEW YORK — IN many ways, Staten Island has little in common with the rest of New York City. And if its leaders have their way, those differences may be formalized - because they plan to secede. Although the sparsely populated, residential island is a far cry from the urban tumult of the other boroughs (Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx), many Staten Islanders have long accepted their status as New York City residents. But that may have changed when the United States Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in favor of alterations in New York City's governing process which would diminish Staten Island's influence.
For many years, the city's Board of Estimate has made major decisions on budgets, contracts, and land-use planning. Like the other, much larger boroughs, tiny Staten Island (population 400,000) has one vote on the Board of Estimate. This gives it a voice disproportionate to its population, and ensures that Staten Islanders are not outmaneuvered by the million-plus residents in each of the other boroughs. But the court ruled such a setup violates the principle of one man, one vote. Now, the city is working to revise its charter, and the effect is likely to be some diminution of Staten Island's role in city decisions.
So the borough's leaders have decided to strike out on their own. ``Staten Islanders rally around the flag - for the homeland when it's threatened,'' says state Sen. John Marchi, who has been dubbed ``the father of secession.''
After repeated failures, the state legislature has now approved a bill which allows the borough to decide its own fate. If Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) signs the bill, Staten Islanders will then vote on the idea. Secession advocates cite polls showing strong support for island independence.
Residents' concerns that the city will dump unpopular projects on Staten Island are helping fuel the breakaway movement. The island is already home to the world's largest landfill, which receives 1,000 tons of solid waste every hour, 24 hours a day.
Residents also complain about proposals to put homeless shelters on the island, and say they receive inferior fire and police services already.
Although Staten Island is just a short ferryboat ride from Manhattan, it is a world apart. The borough is largely suburban - even rural in spots - with mostly one- and two-story houses, grassy lawns, backyards, and swimming pools.
For Mr. Marchi, the key to the island's character is the conservative, suburban nature. ``Staten Island doesn't have the crime or welfare problem, and [has a] good, sturdy bourgeois middle class,'' Marchi says.
Mayor Edward Koch expresses a strong hope that Staten Island, where many city workers live, will remain in the fold. ``He has always had a warm spot for Staten Island,'' says the mayor's spokesman Larry Simonberg.
Although some residents think cutting themselves off from America's largest city is unworkable, Marchi disagrees. ``We can make it,'' he says, pointing out that the borough's population, although small by New York City standards, would still make it the second-largest city in New York State and larger than any city in New Jersey. To fund a likely increase in costs associated with self-government, secessionists say they would charge New York City handsomely for using the dump.
Even with the movement toward secession gaining steam, the break with New York City is by no means a certainty. Some assert that it is unconstitutional to permit secession without a vote by residents of the entire city first. Besides, there are many complicated questions about ownership rights to be resolved. For example, Staten Island's public works, such as water lines and sewers, are owned by New York City.
For its part, New York City hasn't given up. The charter revision panel promises to create ways of protecting the borough's voice in city affairs.