6:06am

Fri September 14, 2012
Politics and Government

Counties face budget crunch in New York state

Fall means budget season in counties across New York State.  Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney makes her budget pitch to lawmakers Friday.  Many governments are facing the same pressures.

If you talk to a county executive in New York State about their budget, chances are you'll hear something about unfunded mandates.  They are the bane of budget makers.  Unfunded mandates are the programs the state government requires counties be responsible for, without giving them the cash to cover them.   

Last year, highly-touted mandate relief passed in Albany, in the form of a revised pension tier system, and the shift of some Medicaid administrative costs from the counties to the state. County Executive Daniel McCoy says it was all well and good, but ultimately it didn't translate into any savings in his budget.   

"Albany County would have saved $523,000 next year, but the Senate and Assembly changed the formula.  We saved $293,000 instead.  Which is still a savings, which is still good.  But, they changed the safety net money during that process last session, and they raised the money for  safety net for juvenile detention, foster care a few other programs.  I have to find $300,000 in a budget that I have shortfalls this year.  So it's like inside baseball." said McCoy.

Erie County Executive Mark Polencarz  says basically orders from Albany leave little room for counties to have any flexibility, after you add in pension and health care costs.

"In Erie County we control about ten percent of our overall budget.  The rest are related to mandated costs with the various social service programs, the public safety programs, there's really only a certain amount we can control.  Ten to 12 percent at most," said Polencarz.

Westchester County Executive Rob Asterino is a little more blunt when looking at these unfunded mandates.
 "We're getting down to the bare necessities now.  It's going to be eventually, five ten years from now, counties will be the social services arm of New York State.  That's it," Asterino said.

So what's a county to do?  Polencarz says if they can make it through the next few years, things will get better.
"I feel comfortable we're going to have a balanced budget starting in 2014 because of mandate relief.  But I have problems with a barely balance budget this year and ensuring that I have a balanced budget in 2013," said Polencarz.

Astorino isn't so optomistic.  He expects local governments will have to make some tough decisions. "Each county, each municipality, each school district is gonna have to lay off more employees, cut more services, or explode taxes."

McCoy says Albany County has already cut its workforce by a third in the last ten years.  He says Albany County simply has to change the way it does things.

"We have to run it like a business.  We have to strive to make money for a profit so to speak for the constituents we represent.  And still deliver services.  And we have to look at services  differently. The way we're delivering them today isn't the way we'll be delivering them in the future.  There are things that people are going to see differently,"  said McCoy.

Erie County has the added distinction of being one of five governments in New York state, run by a state-appointed control board, because of a fiscal crisis eight years ago. Polencarz worries that other communities, facing red ink, will end up going that route.

"If there's anything I can recommend to any community that's potentially on the horizon having a control board face them is, don't.  Do everything possible to avoid a control board.  Because not only do you lose control with regards to your finances on a day-to-day function, you basically lose the power to make basic policy as well," said Polencarz.

Polencarz says a control board will rule Erie County's finances until 2039.  A control board is a very real possibility for Rockland County according to the New York State Comptroller's office. Astorino won't be surprised.  He said, "I think we are less than a year away before there will be control boards all over the place, and someone is going to test bankruptcy.  I think we are getting very close to that."

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