Cuomo: $80M to help local governments survive

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed at least $80 million in state aid Tuesday to help New York cities and cou

Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed at least $80 million in state aid Tuesday to help New York cities and counties escape a decades-long cycle of higher taxes and reduced services in the face of rising public payroll costs and dwindling populations.

State government can no longer afford temporary fixes to an imbalance that is forcing some of America’s greatest cities to face insolvency, Cuomo said at a news conference in describing his proposal to the Legislature.

“It’s not a momentary setback, it’s a chronic imbalance,” Cuomo said.

The state’s last four governors have tried to turn the Rust Belt phenomena around with state aid. Cuomo’s approach would involve a panel that would tailor each plan to a local government’s needs. Changes would likely include consolidating administrative duties with other local governments, refinancing debt, reducing the number of politicians in office, bargaining for no raises, cutting spending and more layoffs.

Some local officials welcomed the approach as a way to free themselves from a tightening fiscal noose. But others said the panel, while helpful, wouldn’t go nearly far enough. They said it lets state government off the hook from making the hard decisions on the biggest issues.

“What is driving us to insolvency is state mandates,” Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner said.

Miner, who co-chairs the state Democratic Committee, wasn’t invited to the Democratic governor’s press conference, although she has been a leader in the effort to pressure Cuomo to help local governments.

She said Syracuse has cut staffing by 282 jobs to 1,915 employees since 1990. She also said the city Fire Department is a huge source of the city’s rising health care and pension costs, much of which were set in Albany with public unions. But the city department is the only full-time, professional firefighting unit in Onondaga County and she wondered aloud how the city could share services with another municipality.

Cuomo’s proposal doesn’t include changes to state laws that protect public jobs and benefits, which powerful state unions lobbied for. Meanwhile, local governments are forced to conform to a law pushed by Cuomo to limit the increase in some of the nation’s highest property taxes to 2 percent a year, with some exceptions.

Tuesday’s proposal also doesn’t cover schools, which account for the largest share of property taxes, and doesn’t include a permanent change in the law that forces governments to accept decisions under binding arbitration in labor disputes, even if the governments can’t afford the result of the decisions.

“I don’t think it will be enough to enable the counties to continue to provide services as well as meet the 2 percent property tax cap,” said Stephen J. Acquario of the New York State Association of Counties. “But it does help.”

The association is among the supporters of Cuomo’s proposal.

The governor said local governments can choose to work with the panel or not. A local government would only have to accept the recommendations if it accepted state aid to consolidate, merge services, or take other action.

He said the panel is a last step before a financial control board, which under law has power to rewrite labor contracts. Local officials seek to avoid those powerful boards because the state-appointed board supersedes locally elected officials until finances are corrected.

“This is a viable alternative,” said Jamestown Mayor Samuel Teresi. “We may be one of the first municipalities in line.”

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