NEW PALTZ, NY — It is a cry that has been growing increasingly loud since the great recession descended upon the land four years ago: counties in New York are buckling under the weight of state mandates. In other words, Albany forces the counties to spend so much money on programs such as Medicaid that they can no longer provide other essential services to their residents.
That is the message that Scott Samuelson, the chairman of the Sullivan County Legislature, took to New Paltz on February 27 when he testified before the State Mandate Relief Council, which was created by Governor Andrew Cuomo specifically to try to ease the mandate burden.
Samuelson said, "New York State is at a critical point in our state's history and, more importantly, our economic future. Counties can no longer use local property tax dollars for local needs, such as road and bridge maintenance and public safety, because the funds are consumed by state mandates. If the state wants true property tax relief, they must let local officials set the property tax levy for local priorities, rather than paying for state-dictated programs."
Like many local officials throughout the state, Samuelson criticized the property tax cap passed last year because without meaningful mandate relief from Albany, the cap puts a financial squeeze on counties.
Samuelson continued, "Clearly, Sullivan County simply can't sustain the current levels of services that our citizenry deserves, due to the fact that 93.2% of our property tax levy is consumed to pay the bills for the state's programs. And, these bills are projected to grow at a rate that is significantly larger than the revenues that would be realized, if Sullivan County were to conform to the property tax cap law in 2013 and beyond.”
Cuomo has proposed several ways to diminish the burden on counties, including a cap on county Medicaid spending, which after a few years would mean the state would pick up all increases in Medicaid spending, and the county share would remain flat. Critics are urging that the state take over Medicaid payments from the counties entirely, which the way Medicaid is funded in 48 states.
Public hearings on mandate relief are underway across the state, and another cost that is seen as crushing to counties is state pension payments. Cuomo has recommended creating a so-called Tier VI option, which would let new state employees choose between the traditional pension program and one that would be more akin to a 401K account that many businesses offer.
Cuomo and his team claim that this move would save the state some $83 billion over the next 30 years. Businesses and some elected officials have endorsed the plan, but it has been strongly opposed by unions that represent state employees.