Critics say proposed mandate relief comes up short

A week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Mandate Relief Team issued its final report, advocates for

A week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Mandate Relief Team issued its final report, advocates for local government are assailing the recommendations as not going nearly far enough to help them control spending.

The recommendations included specific measures the report said could save local governments $245 million.

“In its totality it has clearly failed to address the underlying causes of high property taxes in New York,” said New York Conference of Mayors Executive Director Peter Baynes, who served on the team.

While supporting the minor savings that could be generated from marginal changes, such as new filing requirements and procurement regulations, Baynes said the report should have gone after the costs associated with municipal work forces, including health and retirement benefits.

“We support a lot of this stuff,” he said. “But under the new property tax cap we need to allow for a better control of costs.”

The state property tax cap limits local governments and school districts to about a 2 percent tax hike per year. The state has been criticized for capping taxes but not the many expenses it imposes on local governments.

Baynes added that he was notified in advance of the report being issued, but said he was not involved in selecting the final 70 proposals advanced by the team. “I don’t know how those decisions were ultimately made,” he said.

Joanne Yepsen, a Saratoga Springs representative on the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors, faulted the final report for not reforming the county’s Medicaid burden.

“We would like the state to take over Medicaid so we could start balancing our budget. That is the biggest chunk out of the Saratoga County budget,” she said.

She argued that when the property tax cap was passed, state government should have assumed responsibility for more of the mandates placed on local governments.

“I was hoping for something closer to the ‘nine for 90’ anti-mandate proposal,” Yepsen said, referring to Medicaid, public assistance, child welfare, preschool special education, early intervention, indigent defense, youth detention, probation and pensions. “Nine mandated services consume 90 percent of our property tax levy. I hope this team continues to work throughout 2012 to give this proposal serious consideration.”

Jeff Haber, executive director of the Association of Towns of the State of New York, who also served on the team, characterized the Mandate Relief Team’s creation as a step in the right direction, but lamented the fact that the final report lacked meaningful measures. Overall, he said the association is encouraged by the team’s work and looks forward toward passing relief in the 2012 legislative session.

The relief measures themselves received a mixed reception.

Diane Kennedy, president of the New York News Publishers Association, took issue with proposals that would end requirements for local governments and school districts to publish public meeting notices and procurement needs in the newspaper of record for a community. In both cases, a single website would be set up where the information could be found.

Regarding the procurement issue, Kennedy said, “Essentially it hides how public money is spent in [an online] publication that really no one needs. It’s not acceptable to anyone that isn’t really, really good with computers.”

She said that both measures would result in millions of dollars being taken away from small and family-owned newspapers and also argued that the total doesn’t represent a meaningful amount to the local government and school districts.

In assessing both of the measures together, Kennedy said, “It’s a great way to prevent citizens from knowing what their government is doing, while also harming small upstate employers.”

“Anti-transparency and anti-jobs at the same time,” she said. “The municipal groups have been trying to get rid of public notices for a very long time, so this isn’t much of a surprise.”

Halfmoon town Supervisor Mindy Wormuth said the idea could result in savings. She added that more people are looking for this information online all the time but stressed that there are still some people who don’t have access to computers and would miss out on this information.

“We would probably do some kind of dual type of thing because we don’t want to alienate people without access to the Internet,” she said.

New York State Association for Pupil Transportation Executive Director Peter Mannella was pleased with the report’s focus on transportation savings. One of the costs highlighted were those associated with maintaining back-lit school bus signs, which could be avoided by using reflective materials instead, as most states currently allow.

“We wouldn’t be retrofitting as we buy new buses,” Mannella said of the proposed change, which would save about $6 million over the life of a fleet of buses.

Going forward, he said they want to push for additional reforms and Mannella said they plan on recommending that large school buses not be required to have lap belts anymore. He said the rarely used devices do not make children much safer but do represent significant costs in purchasing the bus and maintaining it.

Another relief proposal would allow county district attorneys to hire assistant district attorneys from outside the county, which Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III described as an appropriate measure for New York City, considering high living costs that push people to live in the suburbs.

“Upstate though, my belief is I think the counties are diverse enough to find a reasonably priced place to live, and I think it’s important to live in the community in which you prosecute so that you understand the sense of what is the standard of reasonableness and an appreciation for local issues and sentiment but always balancing that with what the penal law requires,” Murphy said. “I would likely still require the ADAs to live in the county.”

The Mandate Relief Team had until the spring of 2012 to issue the report, which was released without any of the fanfare — not even a news release — that marked the team’s creation in January. Baynes, who served on the team, said he wasn’t concerned with the timing of the report as much as its lack of substance. He said the report likely came out now so the team could be retired before the new Mandate Relief Council begins its work Jan. 15.

Categories: Schenectady County

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