Warren County Budget Officer Kevin Geraghty sat at his desk Friday and drafted a two-page plea to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
In it, Geraghty asks Cuomo to consider lengthening the amount of time local governments have to make the state pension system whole, arguing that the three years now planned will force annual million-dollar increases to Warren County’s budget.
“We believe a much longer time span is appropriate given the economic stressful times that we are currently in, as well as the fact that counties are now bound to a 2 percent tax cap,” Geraghty wrote.
Geraghty’s message isn’t new, nor is his appeal unique.
Local governments have been calling for mandate relief for decades. Those calls elevated to screams in 2011 when the state adopted the tax cap, with the promise of significant mandate relief in the future.
Local governments from across the state, many of which continue to cut local programs to stay within the cap, continue to cry for a reduction in costly state mandates and criticize Albany for what they characterize as a lack of progress.
But Cuomo is apparently getting annoyed with the complaints.
“I’m not hostile,” Cuomo told the Associated Press Monday after a press conference where he blasted local officials for their anti-mandate rants. “I am provocative, because I want you to foster the discussion.”
The upstate cities of Syracuse and Rochester are on the brink of bankruptcy and have appealed to Albany for a bailout.
But Cuomo said the state has made “tough decisions” over the last two years to close a $10 billion deficit and local governments have to do the same thing.
The state can’t demand that the federal government weaken its oversight of state-run programs or change how it funds them, Cuomo said.
“It just appears he’s getting tired of hearing about it,” Geraghty said Wednesday. “He’s saying, ‘tough.’”
Layoffs are being mulled in Warren County, while Washington County is looking to privatize its nursing home, public health department and transfer stations.
“None of this works if we don’t sell Pleasant Valley (nursing home) and public health,” Washington County Budget Officer Brian Campbell said of his budget projections. “If those things don’t sell, we’ll need to find the money for them somewhere.”
Essex County earlier this year sold its nursing home after two years of debate.
“We could knock out everything that isn’t mandated,” said Essex County Chairman Randy Douglas, one of Cuomo’s biggest supporters in the region who is now grappling with a $10 million shortfall in his county’s 2013 budget. “But people just aren’t going to accept losing the services they’re used to.”
Roads are not being maintained in counties throughout the region and vacant positions are going unfilled.
The state has agreed to a phased takeover of the increases to local Medicaid costs. The state also created a lower pension tier that will save local governments millions over the next two decades.
But counties want immediate, big-ticket relief, not long-term savings. The New York Association of Counties, for example, is calling for changes to the Triborough Amendment, which requires that the terms of expired municipal contracts be extended if a new deal can’t be reached. Cuomo earlier this year squelched talk among counties that the state should take over the local share of Medicaid, which will cost Washington County $11.5 million in 2013 and Warren County close to $13 million.
“Medicaid was never meant to be pushed down to the counties,” Douglas said. “It’s a train wreck.”
The effort to reduce state mandates, largely driven by cash-strapped upstate counties, could be doomed because of the disproportionate power of downstate lawmakers, one local official said.
The state Association of Counties reports the costs of mandated programs shouldered by counties will increase in 2013 by $244 million statewide, $114 million more than the counties are allowed to increase taxes under the tax cap.
Local officials argue the Triborough Amendment gives a union little incentive to negotiate a new deal.
Political observers and state officials have called the Triborough Amendment a “sacred calf” that Albany power brokers are unlikely to take up anytime soon. Many other mandates provide food for the poor and care for the elderly.
Even some of the biggest critics of unfunded state mandates see value in some of the programs.
“Of all the mandates we deal with, this is one of the good ones,” said Argyle Supervisor Bob Henke last week, as Washington County supervisors discussed increasing the $2 million budget for the county’s foster child program.
Cuomo convened a Mandate Relief Task Force last year, but the advisory body missed a June deadline for suggestions and hasn’t convened in months.
Cuts to required public defense expenses, increases in the wage threshold for welfare and reductions in the number of guards required at county jails are ways local officials have suggested to ease state mandates.
But with the governor taking a aggressive stand against the calls for relief, Geraghty wonders if his letter will even be read.
“I hope he just doesn’t toss it in the garbage,” he said.