Unfunded state mandates—checks drawn in Albany on local-government's cash-strapped accounts—will persist without a strong public outcry and gubernatorial leadership, the Assembly’s minority leader said Tuesday.
But if mandates leave local politicians seeing red, Assemblyman Brian M. Kolb said they simply glaze over the eyes of the average taxpayer. " Voters have to be educated on how mandates affect tax bill," he said.
“If the governor of the state won’t push the legislation,” the Canandaigua Republican said of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, “then the Legislature probably won’t either.” Speaking at a forum hosted by Best4NY at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, Kolb warned, “We’re still a long ways away from significant cost relief.”
Sitting on the panel with Kolb, representing county and local government and school boards, were:
- George Oros, County Executive Rob Astorino’s chief of staff, who said 82 cents of every county tax dollar is spent on mandates;
- Peekskill Mayor Mary Foster, a member of the New York Conference of Mayors’ Task Force on Mandate and Property Tax Relief, who said 87 cents of every city tax dollar is spent on people; and
- Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, who said a sour economy more than a tax cap had held median increases in her budgets—spending and levies—to about 2 percent over the past four years.
Still, she said, “we’re seeing a downward spiral as we work to stay within the tax-levy cap.”
The tax cap, championed by Cuomo and enacted last year, limits the tax-levy increases of school districts as well as local and county governments and other taxing jurisdictions to a nominal 2 percent. Coming in the midst of a tough economy, the cap is seen as a major reason for the renewed focus on mandates.
Oros, a Cortlandt Manor resident and former chairman of Westchester’s Board of Legislators, made clear the bookend pressures of mandates and cap. A 2 percent rise in the county’s current $548 million tax levy, he noted, would amount to roughly $11 million. “But mandated Medicaid costs will rise by $7 million and pensions by $11 million,” Oros pointed out, “so, there’s no way we can stay under the cap.”
Moreover, he noted, with mandates taking 82 cents of every dollar, the county budget-makers must find their savings in the remaining 18 cents.
“If we have to cut a bus route, it’s not because we’re mean, or don’t want to provide the service,” Oros said. “It’s because we can’t raise property taxes and must meet mandates.”
Peekskill’s Mayor Foster, for her part, is less concerned with unfunded mandates than she is with “the mandates that drive personnel costs, because 87 percent of our costs are all related to people. . . . We deliver services through people.”
She focused on pension costs, noting the need to set aside the equivalent of 29 percent of the police payroll for retirement.
“What corporation contributes 29 percent of somebody’s salary into the pension fund?” she asked. The city’s other employees, blue collar and white, receive a 21 percent contribution. “When I say the pension system’s broken, it’s broken,” she said. “The only way you cut your pension bill is you cut your people.”
Peekskill announced plans this week to eliminate 40 jobs, three-quarters of them full-time positions.
The school boards’ Lisa Davis, a Chappaqua resident, called on parents and others to speak out on behalf of mandate reform. “We really need a public outcry,” she said. “We . . . really need it from the locals—voters—the taxpayers.”
Davis said of the citizen input, “If anything will make a difference, that will make a difference.”
Minority leader Kolb, calling citizen involvement critical, said, “You have to ratchet up the dialog on mandate relief.”
He urged the public, “Don’t give up hope, because we’ve got a lot of people fighting . . . All we’ve got to do is get more of them. We’ve got to keep the pressure on.”