County governments will use a fine-tooth comb to find much-needed relief in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed state budget.
“The devil will be in the details,” Fulton County Administrative Officer Jon Stead said about the $136 billion proposal unveiled Tuesday afternoon. The budget includes hundreds of millions in aid to local governments, but it is new flexibility measures and the absorption of Medicaid costs that counties are definitely interested in.
In particular, counties are reviewing a proposal that would allow future savings from a new pension program to be realized immediately with a long-term contribution plan. Because the plan, referred to as Tier VI, would cover only new hires, local governments and school districts wouldn’t normally realize major savings for decades.
“That was one of the areas in the governor’s proposals that piqued my interests,” said Stead. “It might have some promise over the next few years”
Pension costs are a large part of any budget drafted by a municipality or school district, especially with the slow economy shrinking tax bases.
In Saratoga County, retirement costs for public workers grew by more than a million dollars from 2012 to 2013, according to Supervisor Alan Grattidge, R-Charlton, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.
“We’d certainly be interested in looking at it,” he said of the proposal.
Despite this positive step, counties are still asking for more help easing state-mandated costs that account for most of their budgets.
“We were looking for more aggressive mandate relief,” Grattidge said, specifically focusing on Medicaid costs.
Schenectady County Legislature Chairwoman Judy Dagostino said in a statement that mandates consume 84 percent of the county’s budget this year, with $34.6 million going to Medicaid alone.
Counties are still responsible for some Medicaid costs, but the state had already capped the counties’ responsibility for growth in the program at 3 percent each year, and this year, the state has begun gradually taking over all growth. Stead said curtailing local growth was a step in the right direction, but existing Medicaid costs are already too high.
“That’s why property taxes are up in double digits in Fulton County,” he said.
“Almost all counties believe ... there needs to be a larger share of the Medicaid portion taken over by the state,” Stead said. “Medicaid equals property taxes in New York state”
In addition to the state assuming a larger portion of the costs, counties are also interested in reviewing Medicaid benefits offered in New York, which exceed federal minimums and are the most generous in the country. Stead described the current benefits as not sustainable.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, whose district includes Montgomery, Schenectady and Albany counties, said the Medicaid and pension proposals require serious consideration. During the budget process, he said he planned on talking to county officials to gauge their needs, with a focus on creating as much local flexibility as possible with budgets.
The state budget also included limits on pay raises that first responders could get through binding arbitration with distressed local governments. Grattidge called this a good symbolic step in reining local personnel costs. Meaningful relief, he said, would mean tackling the Triborough Amendment, which reduces the pressure on employees to negotiate for a new contract because the terms of a previous contract continue after it expires.
Reforms to the early intervention program, which serves children under the age of 3 with disabilities or developmental delays, are designed to save counties money without decreasing services. Stead called the reforms an incremental improvement, compared to what was in last year’s proposed budget, but was encouraged by the move. He’s hoping these reforms, as opposed to last year’s proposals, will be left in the budget after the state Legislature gets involved.
The counties are also looking forward to a provision that would automatically renew local sales tax rates without approval from the state Legislature.
“It won’t save any money,” Stead said, “but will provide predictability.”
Good news in the budget specifically for Saratoga County was the continued state payment for hosting the Saratoga Casino & Raceway. The county will get almost $500,000, which it had put in its budget last year on the belief it would be paid out, despite being withheld in some past years.
Overall, counties are pleased with Cuomo’s budget, noting their burdens have not increased.
“It felt to me like we weren’t going backwards,” Grattidge said.
On Monday, the state Legislature will hold a hearing on the local and general government portions of the proposed budget.