“There are going to be tough choices. The way I look at it, unless New York State delivers mandate reform tomorrow, there are people losing their homes in Sullivan County; we can’t afford to live here,” said Sullivan County Legislator Cindy Gieger.
The setting was a town hall meeting at the Liberty Senior Center on May 31, and the topic was how to persuade politicians in Albany that taxpayers at the county level are straining under the weight of programs that are dictated by Albany but are paid for with local property taxes.
County manager David Fanslau repeated the basic facts: state-mandated programs consume 93% of the county tax levy, leaving county lawmakers very little choice about where to cut.
Medicaid payments are a prime example of an unfunded mandate. New York is one of only two states, the other being North Carolina, where counties are required to pick up a share of the cost. County treasurer Ira Cohen said he mails a check of nearly $400,000 every week to Albany to cover the county share of the cost of Medicaid.
Governor Andrew Cuomo is working to reduce the Medicaid burden on counties, but it’s not going fast enough to suit many local politicians across the state. Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther said, “The governor has gone an inch, but there’s a mile to go.”
Gieger’s main goal at the meeting, along with legislator Kitty Vetter, was to recruit residents who would lend a hand getting their neighbors to write letters and sign petitions to support a law that would immediately freeze the county’s cost of Medicaid. On that count, the meeting appeared to be successful, because several residents said they would volunteer.
But there were other topics that some members of the crowd of 45 or so people wanted to talk about. One was a campaign to change the laws regarding tax exemption in the state. Cohen, who has written extensively on the topic, said that it would be difficult to tackle the problem through legislation because of the enormous lobbying clout of the various religions in the state who want to preserve the status quo. He said other ways to tackle it would be through court cases or through convening a constitutional convention, in which the state constitution would be reworked. Several residents agreed to work on that committee as well.
A third topic of conversation involved people in need of social services. Two residents said they understood that people from New York City and elsewhere come to Sullivan County to sign up for such programs as emergency housing and food stamps because those services are easier to obtain than elsewhere in the state.
Fanslau and Cohen said that is not true; the standards are the same in every county in the state.