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NY Counties, Local governments, still asking/screaming/begging, need MANDATE Relief

October 12, 2012

Struggling counties urge relief of state mandates

(10/12/2012) New York’s counties are making a push to get Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers to take their growing fiscal crises seriously. They say they need relief from some state mandates that they say are bringing some counties to the brink of…

Budget director sees another tough year for NYS

(10/03/2012) Top New York officials say it’s going to be another difficult year for the state budget. Governor Cuomo has already told state agencies to keep spending flat, and those that depend on state programs are not counting on big increases….

Counties “govern by triage,” seek mandate relief   

by David Sommerstein
Albany, NY, Oct 10, 2012 — The North Country is seeing some tough times in county government, with Essex County facing a $13 million shortfall, and St. Lawrence County projecting a 20 percent property tax increase.
New York State Association of Counties Executive Director Stephen Acquario says counties are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, counties have to pay for dozens of mandated services, from Medicaid to child welfare, which cost more every year. On the other hand, they now have to keep tax increases within a property tax cap.
Acquario told David Sommerstein the situation leaves counties essentially “governing by triage”.
I think the last thing the state needs to do is run around the state saying how great of a job they’ve done to cap property tax. That’s not the answer.

Local government, in this particular instance, the county governments, have been forced to make some pretty, fairly drastic cutbacks in local services. What are they? Nursing homes, certainly in the North Country that’s happening, Washington County, Essex County and some others are looking at this certified home health agency.

So what’s causing the pressure right now, what the listeners are seeing unfold in front of them is a sign of the times. Largely flat revenue…meaning the sales tax that we use to operate the government, and the other piece of the revenue is property tax.

And the governor has told the people of New York the property taxes are too high, that we should cap them. The counties are struggling mightily to try to keep those taxes down, but are having a very hard time of this, because of the amount of money that has to go to Albany to pay for state expenditures delivered locally.

Some county lawmakers are saying we have to cut things like roads and bridges, and sheriff road patrols were suggested, help for the elderly, offices for the aging. A county legislator in St. Lawrence County, Fred Morrill, said ‘yes these are essential things, but they’re not mandated.’

The vast majority of these mandates that the counties are tied up with, the largest of these being Medicaid, are unfunded mandates or underfunded mandates. So what does that mean? That means that the county government has to apply all of its sales tax. The county government has to apply all of its property tax, just about 80 percent of those types of revenues.

Maybe not all of them, but the vast majority of those two revenue sources go to pay for these nine state-mandated programs and services. And that’s putting the pressure on the local services.

What do you think that the state, which also doesn’t have money to spend, should do to ameliorate the situation for the counties?

I think the last thing the state needs to do is run around the state saying how great of a job they’ve done to cap property tax. That’s not the answer. That’s a step in the right direction, our property taxes are too high. An individual is going to have a hard time paying an additional $165 a year in high property taxes. And I think that capping the revenue is hardly an answer.

To what extent are counties responsible for taking sort of political advantage of saying we only raise property taxes by so much in the better years, and not paying enough attention to sort of making sure they had enough of a fund balance in these lean years that we are in now?

I think that the counties, over time, have been reluctant to raise property taxes, because they’re high in the first instance, that our economy has been such that many people are out of work, that these legislators are citizens too.

They do not like to raise property taxes, for additional programs. They are being forced to raise property taxes to pay for programs that are mandated by the State, and less [for] local services. The situation at the local level has become unmanageable.

Steven Acquario directs the New York State Association of Counties. NYSAC has released a list of dozens of mandated services the State should pay more for.

Struggling counties want some rules eased

Oct 11, 2012 By

New York’s counties are making a push to get Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers to take their growing fiscal crisis seriously, and let them off the hook for some state mandates that they say are bringing some counties to the brink of bankruptcy. Steve Acquario, with the New York Association of Counties, says his lobby and advocacy group has already begun researching laws governing municipal bankruptcies, in case struggling counties in New York have need of guidance.  But he says he hopes it would be a last resort. “Yes we can declare bankruptcy.” Acquario said. “But it’s a drastic measure, what is that telling the people of New York?  That we can’t run our government? It’s a terrible situation.” Counties say they are squeezed between the recently enacted 2% property tax cap and state rules that they say they’re running out of money to fund.  Acquario says the data shows a “very serious” widening gap between the money that counties take in in revenue, largely from property taxes, and the cost of state mandated programs. That difference will reach $4.2 billion dollars annually by the end of the decade.  “ We call it a jaws chart,” he said. One county, Cortland County in Central New York, is almost at its constitutional taxing limit, several counties are under a state run financial control board, and others are spending down their reserves at an alarming rate.
Acquario says the largest mandate that accounts for much of the counties’ budgets is the requirement that counties pay for 25% of the state’s $54 billion dollars in annual Medicaid costs.  The federal government pays just over half, and the state pays for the other quarter, but Acquario says federal and state government have greater resources to come up with the money, like an income tax and other taxes and fees. He says counties have to rely on just the property tax and a “narrow band” of taxpayers to fund a vast health care program. He says it’s “absurd” and no longer sustainable. Governor Cuomo and the legislature have already taken over all county Medicaid expenses that rise above 3% each year, but have not agreed to take over all of the $7.5 billion dollars in costs to counties and New York City. Acquario suggests that perhaps a take over could be done in phases, with the state paying for long term care costs first.  He says nearly $3 billion dollars in savings expected from the federal Affordable Health Care Act, also known as Obamacare,  could help pay for the partial takeover. The counties also believe a waiver request sought by the Governor’s Medicaid Redesign Team from the federal government could also bring in more funds. And they urge Cuomo’s Medicaid overhaul panel to look at reducing some benefits, as well, to more closely match what’s offered in the private sector.   The counties would also like to get out of an obligation to pay for almost half of the costs of pre school education for disabled children. Acquario says school districts should pay those costs instead.  He says if schools were responsible for the expenses, they might find ways to save money in the program. Acquario has an answer for people whose eyes glaze over when they hear the term mandate relief. “Look at their tax bill,” he said. “If they’re flat, they’re fortunate.”  Without help from the state, he expects 20% of all counties to exceed the tax cap in the budgets they are now putting together. If 60% of a county’s legislators agree to raise taxes beyond the 2% limit, then the property tax cap can be overridden.  County leaders are also taking other steps to reduce costs, like privatizing the running of nursing homes, or selling them outright.  They are also laying off workers. Governor Cuomo appointed a task force to try to provide some relief from mandates. It was due to issue a report last June, but missed that deadline and has not set a new date to report.

Counties Push for Cuomo to Let Them Off the Hook

October 11, 2012   By Karen DeWitt: NYS Public Radio/WXXI

New York’s counties are making a push to get Governor Andrew Cuomo and  state lawmakers to let them off the hook for some mandates that they say  are bringing some to the brink of bankruptcy.

Steve Acquario, with the New York Association of counties, said his lobby and advocacy group has already begun researching laws governing municipal bankruptcies, in case struggling counties in New York have need of guidance.

“Yes, we can declare bankruptcy,” Acquario said. “But it’s a drastic measure, what is that telling the people of New York?  That we can’t run our government? It’s a terrible situation.”

The gap between what counties take in from property taxes and what they pay for state-mandated programs will reach $4.2 billion annually by the end of the decade, he said.

Acquario said the largest mandate that accounts for 25 percent of the state’s $54 billion in annual Medicaid costs.

Cuomo and the legislature have already taken over all county Medicaid expenses that rise above 3 percent each year, but have not agreed to take over all of the $7.5 billion in costs to counties and New York City.

Counties say they are also squeezed between the recently enacted 2 percent property tax cap and state rules.

In Cortland County, located in Central New York, taxation is almost at its constitutional limit. Several others are under a state-run financial control board. And still others are spending down their reserves at an alarming rate.

Cuomo appointed a task force to try to provide some relief from  mandates. It was due to issue a report last June, but missed that  deadline and has not set a new date to report.

Association of Counties suggests steps to cut state mandates

Oct 8, 2012   | Written by Jessica Bakeman Albany bureau

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ALBANY — The state Association of Counties released a report Monday with recommendations for how the state can cut down on local governments’ mandate costs, arguing that transferring more decision-making power to county officials will help save money.

Local officials have said that unfunded state mandates — programs or regulations required by state law that use local funds — are contributing to fiscal stress for most municipalities and could even to lead to financial insolvency for some. The 2 percent property-tax cap, which limits revenue that governments can raise through taxes, has confounded the problem, officials have said.

“Unless and until the state relieves some of these mandates, our counties will continue to face structural deficits,” said Stephen Acquario, the association’s executive director, in a statement. “Counties are doing their part to lower the costs they can control, but they have no ability to reduce the costs handed down by Albany.”

New York’s counties combined are projected to experience a fiscal gap of more than $10 billion over the next five years, according to the report. Counties are currently operating under more than 40 state mandates, the report said. When grouped together, the nine costliest programs are projected to outpace property-tax revenues by $130 million in 2013.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has touted its mandate-relief efforts. Over the next three years, New York will take over the growth in counties’ Medicaid costs, freezing them by 2015 and creating an estimated savings of $1.2 billion. The state also enacted a new, less-generous pension tier for public workers, which is estimated to save $80 billion over 30 years.

Also, Cuomo has praised the success of the tax cap. In a report last month, his office said that the 2 percent tax growth is 40 percent less than the previous 10-year average.

“Through the governor’s reforms, like the property tax cap, pension reform and hundreds of millions of dollars in mandate relief he fought to pass this year, New Yorkers will save billions of dollars in their property taxes,” Cuomo’s office said in an email to supporters last week.

Local officials said that Cuomo has done more than past governors in mandate relief, but there is still work to be done.

The report’s authors offered 51 recommendations for mandate relief.

“We’re not looking for money — I know I am not looking for money from the state of New York,” said Chemung County Executive Tom Santulli. “We’re just looking to say we can no longer afford all these programs. There is a lot of waste.

“What we need to do is not just shift costs,” he continued. “It’s time to start changing the way these programs are operated because it’s obvious there are counties and cities in this state that are on the verge of insolvency.”

Medicaid, the health insurance program for poor and disabled people, is the largest state mandate on counties. Even with the state’s pledge to pick up some of counties’ Medicaid tab, local officials have said the cost is an overwhelming burden. The report suggests the state gradually take over all local costs associated with Medicaid.

Counties’ share is $7.57 billion annually, the report said. The state pays $21.8 billion, and the federal government pays $27 billion.

In the report, the authors write that the state can generate new revenue to cover all local Medicaid costs by enacting the recommendations of Cuomo’s Medicaid Redesign Team, a group tasked with finding and eliminating inefficiencies in Medicaid spending, and by utilizing savings that will follow full implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.

In many recommendations, counties are asking for the state to allow them more decision-making power, which the report suggests will cut costs.

For example, to provide relief for preschool special-education mandates, counties suggest allowing them more say in the placement and transportation of each child. Operating the state-mandated program costs counties $637 million annually; the state’s share is $936 million.

The report argues that although counties pay 40.5 percent of costs for preschool special education, school districts and parents have the power to decide where students are placed.

Authors argue that counties should have a say so they might advocate for the most cost-efficient providers.

In other examples, the report claims that counties should have more power in determining staffing and performance criteria for child welfare programs. The report also recommends that county officials be able to set pay rates for public defenders.

BEST4NY Hosts Mandate Relief Forum At Fox Lane

by Liz ButtonSchools10/03/12
Assembly minority leader Brian Kolb speaks as BEST4NY founder Jim McCauley looks on Tuesday night at Fox Lane Middle School     Photo Credit: Liz Button

BEDFORD, N.Y. — Westchester citizen advocacy group BEST4NY aims to mobilize local governments and their constituents to pressure Albany on the issue of unfunded state mandate relief, and it brought the fight to the Fox Lane campus Tuesday.

According to the group, while counties, towns, cities, villages and school districts are already facing tough budgetary pressures due to the state’s 2 percent property tax levy cap, unfunded mandates passed down from the state increase costs for local governments, forcing them to cut essential local services and inflate property taxes.

New York State Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb (R,C,I – Canandaigua) said the lack of progress on mandate relief is not for a lack of solutions, such as two task forces assembled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and bills like the Taxpayer Relief Act. The stumbling block is legislators in Albany who do not have the political courage to fight for the legislation, he said.

“We’re still a long ways away from significant cost relief,” he said. The key to real change is getting the message out so taxpayers understand that this issue affects their pocketbooks, Kolb said.

While Albany insists that the tax cap and Tier 6 pension reform have saved money, BEST4NY, which stands for “Better Education and Smarter Taxation 4 New York,” posits that these do not result in relief for municipalities in the short term, which is needed.

State government is camouflaging its excessive spending by passing down mandates to counties, schools and towns, a move that ultimately hurts the taxpayers in these localities, said George Oros, chief of staff for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.

“In Westchester, 82 cents of every dollar we collect in property tax goes to mandates in Albany,” he said.

Peekskill Mayor Mary Foster and Lisa Davis, executive director of Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, also spoke at Tuesday’s public forum.

On the school level, Davis said, everyone wants to keep budget cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, but there has already been talk in some districts of dismantling pre-K, eliminating kindergarten and reducing funds for literacy programs.

“The end is not here because in 2012 we continue to see mandates being put on our school districts. And every mandate is well-served, it’s well intentioned, but they cost money,” she said.

Davis pointed to recent state mandates like the Dignity For All Act, the newly required cyberbullying policy that puts the burden of responsibility on the schools even if the incident happens remotely, and the largest unfunded mandate for schools: annual professional performance reviews (APPRs).

  • Brian Kolb & Bill Samuels…Counties map out Mandate Relief…Mark Ladov of the Brennan Center….CFR  Download
  • Counties want mandate relief. Know what they are? Watch Now

Unfunded mandates forum

10/02/2012 09:23 PM By: Erin Vannella

“Doing less with less” was part of the message for local and state leaders at a forum at the Rockefeller Institute of Government Public Policy in Albany.  The topic of discussion? Unfunded mandates and how they affect local governments.

ALBANY, N.Y. — “With the increase cost in state mandates exceeding the amount that we can raise in property taxes with the two percent tax, we’re having to cut local services,” said Rensselaer County Executive Republican Kathy Jimino.

Enough is enough say New York’s county leaders. They say unfunded state mandates are crippling local economies by requiring services that the government is not providing money to help pay for.

“We have had layoffs in each of the last three years and we’ve had program cuts,” said Jimino. “Last year, we had proposed some pretty draconian cuts in terms of senior services and in terms of veterans services.”

It’s a statewide problem that leaders on the local and state level discussed in open forum in Albany Tuesday. Cuomo’s cap on Medicaid costs and pension system reforms, many said, aren’t enough.

“I think what we’re looking for is to be more efficient and more flexible when it comes to rules and regulations and requirements that we put on local government and school districts,” said 43rd Senate District Republican Betty Little.

“I feel like our decision-making ability has been almost taken away from us and all we’re doing is implementing someone else’s priorities using local resources,” said New York State School Board Association Executive Director Timothy Kremer.

But while talking about it may bring some peace of mind, local leaders demand movement with everything from education to pension plans hanging in the balance.

“We need them to understand why it is that we continue to ask for relief from these mandates from the state and that we are at the same time finding those economies of scale at the local level trimming those costs, holding the line where we can,” said Jimino. “We recognize that the bottom line is our taxpayers cannot afford to pay more particularly when the economy remains rather bleak.”

For local governments, relief is spelled  ‘M-A-N-D-A-T-E’

11:38 PM, Oct 2, 2012   | Joseph Spector, Albany Bureau Chief
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ALBANY — The Cuomo administration on Tuesday defended its efforts to limit unfunded mandates on local governments, saying they have capped Medicaid costs and reformed the pension system.

But it wasn’t enough for local leaders and the state’s School Boards Association.

During a two-hour panel discussion Tuesday, local government officials said the state’s moves have been helpful, but more are needed.

“What we are seeing right now is governing by triage,” said Stephen Acquario, executive director for the state Association of Counties.

The state’s 57 counties outside New York City, as well as towns and smaller cities, are developing their budgets for the 2013 fiscal year, which starts January 1.

Local governments said they are being squeezed by revenues that aren’t keeping up with growing costs, particularly pension expenses for employees and state-mandated programs.

They said they are limited in how much they can raise taxes because of a property-tax cap implemented last year. It limits the growth in property taxes to 2 percent a year.

For counties, the tax cap will hold counties to raising $114 million in new tax revenue. Their expenses are set to grow by $244 million, Acquario said.

“It’s not what to cut. It’s when and how much,” Acquario said.

Acquario was joined on the panel by Cuomo’s budget director Robert Megna; Sen. Betty Little, R-Glens Falls; and Timothy Kremer, executive director of the state School Boards Association. It was sponsored by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, which is part of SUNY Albany.

Megna said Gov. Andrew Cuomo this year agreed to have the state cap counties’ Medicaid costs at 3 percent a year. Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled, is the largest state mandate on counties.

The state also implemented a new pension tier, Tier VI, that is estimated to save the state more than $80 billion over the next 30 years. The new pension tier lowers benefits for new public employees.

“We believe significant mandate relief, in taking over those costs, will over time provide a substantial local benefit,” Megna said.

Upstate cities said they face bankruptcy without state help. Cities have lost population and manufacturing jobs, leading to an erosion of their tax base.

Megna said the state, despite its own fiscal woes and spending cuts, has been able to keep aid flat to cities. He said the Democratic governor is looking at ways to help cities.

“I think it’s premature to talk about any specifics,” Megna said.

Kremer said the state needs to reform the Triborough Amendment, the oft-criticized law that allows union contracts to continue even after they expire. The law, critics say, makes it difficult to negotiate new deals with unions; unions say it offers them job protection.

“We don’t want to dismiss anybody. We don’t want anybody to lose their job,” Kremer said. “But these contracts have expired and people are getting automatic step (salary) increases every year, on average 2 percent.”

Little said a mandate-relief panel formed by the Cuomo administration this year will hopefully find more ways to curb unfunded mandates.

“We have the tax cap, and the tax cap is bringing mandate relief to the fore,” she said.

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