Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Legislative and Research Priorities 2/8

A shocking development in the Salem house explosion investigation consumed most of my day, but I wanted to pass along this bit of information from the Saratoga County Administrator's Office.

The Legislative and Research committee has outlined its top priorities for the year. They'll take these 11 goals down to Albany, probably in early March, and meet with state legislators.

That's sure to be an awkward gathering, after this whole mess.

The list and my analysis after the jump.

1. Calling on the Governor and State Legislature to Implement a Full Takeover of All Local Costs of the Medicaid Program. Medicaid is the largest unfunded mandate imposed by New York State and has contributed to property taxes in our state being the highest in the nation. This year, Saratoga County budgeted $23.3 million – nearly 46% of our property tax levy – to cover this single mandate. We support legislation introduced last year (S.5889-B/A.8644) that would implement an 8-year state takeover of county Medicaid costs, placing responsibility for this state program in the hands of state leaders where it belongs. Governor Cuomo’s 2012-13 Executive Budget proposal to phase in a “hard cap” on Medicaid growth over three years would provide county property taxpayers with no relief this year and allow the burden of this mandate to continue growing for three more years. A full state takeover is the only real solution.

Views: This is nothing new. Counties across the state have struggled with Medicaid. Legislators, however, would be hard-pressed to find the money for the Medicaid program elsewhere in the state budget. Call me skeptical, but I don't think the county has any chance of getting the significant relief they hope for immediately.

2. Urging the State Legislature and Governor to Honor Home Rule Requests, Enabling Local Officials to Better Manage Local Finances and Protect Property Taxpayers. With passage of the property tax cap and the state’s failure to enact complimentary mandate relief, local officials are in greater need than ever before for alternative revenue sources that will allow us to meet our legal obligations without compromising essential services. Yet in recent years, the State Legislature has delayed responding to home rule requests or worse, ignored them. If State Legislators are unwilling to honor home rule requests, then they should reform the home rule process to allow local officials to set their own sales tax and other home rule revenue rates within reasonable parameters.

Views: This, undoubtedly, is in response to Farley and McDonald's comments about how they didn't think the sales tax bill would get through the Senate. Legislators have told me the bill had at least a puncher's chance in the Assembly. That means less than nothing, though, if it can't pass the senate.

3. Urging a Legislative Solution to protect County Taxpayers from Assessments Charged by the Hudson River-Black River Regulating District (HRBRRD) to Close its Revenue Shortfall. If Saratoga and its fellow counties lose our current appeal of an adverse NYS Supreme Court ruling made last year, our county’s share of the assessment would be approximately $1.5 million per year, plus the unpaid assessments due since HRBRRD adopted its current apportionment methodology in 2010. We urge our state and federal representatives to find a legislative alternative to this unjust and arbitrary burden on county taxpayers.

Views: Malta Supervisor Paul Supervisor, the Legislative and Research Committee Chair, said this is a top priority. Albany, Rensselaer, Warren and Washington counties are also on the hook for the bill, which stems from a 2010 ruling that I'll let my colleague Emily Donohue explain.
In April 2010, the state Department of Environmental Conservation gave the district permission to tax the individual counties after the courts determined the district could no longer collect fees from downstate hydroelectric plants that used their complex system of locks and dams — used to control the Hudson and Black rivers from flooding — to generate electricity.
"It needs to be fixed," Sausville said. "The most desirable solution is to get the federal law changed."

4. Supporting Pension Tier VI. Our yearly contribution to the state pension fund is Saratoga County’s second-most costly unfunded mandate, budgeted at nearly $12.3 million this year. The combination of a weak economy and years of generous guaranteed pension benefits has resulted in a growing and unsustainable financial burden on county taxpayers, the majority of whom do not enjoy a comparable level of retirement security. We believe the 2012-13 Executive Budget’s Tier VI proposal represents an opportunity to control future costs while providing a pension benefit that is fair to government employees, and we urge the State Legislature to enact it in the final State Budget.

Views: This is in Cuomo's executive budget. The county, apparently, thinks his proposal is spot-on.

5. Urging Reforms to Ensure More Timely State Reimbursement for State Mandated Services. Not only are counties not adequately reimbursed for their expenses on mandated services, but too often we must wait far too long – as long as several years – for the state reimbursements we actually do receive. This is the functional equivalent of the state forcing us to issue interest-free loans to pay for programs, and it creates cash flow difficulties that can lead to short-term borrowing, spending of reserves and damage to our credit rating. We urge the enactment of legislation to minimize the reimbursement lag, including provisions allowing counties to collect interest on late reimbursements, and we call on the Governor to establish strict rules at state agencies to ensure prompt payments.

Views: Supervisors have made comments at public meetings about how the counties are going bankrupt paying the state's mandate bills. Relief is promised down the pipeline, but they don't have the luxury of time. As I said in my first view, the state doesn't have that money at the moment.

6. Calling on the State Legislature to Maintain Restored VLT Revenues in the State Budget. Governor Cuomo’s Executive Budget preserves the VLT aid to Saratoga County and Saratoga Springs that was taken away in 2009 but partially restored last year. The county received $499,000 in 2011, and these funds are necessary to defray local costs associated with hosting a video lottery gaming facility.

Views: This was also a big priority in Mayor Johnson's State of the City address.

7. Absent an Agreement to Schedule the State and Federal Primaries the Same Day, Requesting 100% State Reimbursement of the Costs Associated with Holding a Third Primary. The federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (“MOVE”) Act requires that ballots be made available to military personnel and others living abroad not less than 45 days before the general election. The State has failed to enact legislation to adjust its primary election date to enable compliance, prompting a federal court to order a primary for congressional offices on June 26, 2012, instead of September 11, 2012, as required by New York election law. Because of the presidential primary in April, this will result in an unanticipated, unprecedented third primary which will cost $50 million statewide and Saratoga County an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 in unbudgeted expenses. In the interest of government efficiency, the preferred solution is for the Legislature to consolidate the federal and local primary dates to a single date to satisfy both the 45-day requirement of MOVE and the administrative time needed by boards of election between the primary and general election dates. If the state does not secure an agreement, we request full reimbursement for the unfunded, mandated third primary.

Views: Unfunded mandates strike again. Saratoga County's reserves are perilously low and this, if it's not resolved, won't help matters.

8. Requesting a More Equitable Share of the New York State Public Safety Surcharge to Support Statewide Interoperable Public Safety Communications. In 2010, the State collected over $200 million from its $1.20 surcharge on wireless telephones. This surcharge was designed to be spent on emergency 9-1-1 systems, yet the state has historically allocated only 6% of the funds back to counties, which actually provide 9-1-1 services and upgrade and maintain 9-1-1 systems. The NYS Division of Homeland Security recently awarded long-promised grants to counties from this funding pool and the Governor’s 2012-13 Executive Budget promises more, but the state still has a long way to go. Therefore, we are asking for a greater share of surcharge monies to provide the best wireless 9-1-1 services available to the public.

Views: When you split 6 percent of $200 million between the state's counties, you're not talking about a lot of money. Even a slight increase could go a long way toward helping Saratoga County's budget.

9. Supporting Expanded Collection of DNA while Ensuring that Counties are Fairly Compensated for Implementation Costs. We believe the 2012-13 Executive Budget proposal to expand the state DNA database is a positive step forward in solving crimes and exonerating the falsely accused, and we support those goals. We also note that county Sheriffs and Probation Departments will collect the additional DNA samples, resulting in the expenditure of staff time and resources. State law requires a $50 DNA databank fee on anyone convicted of an offense requiring submission of a DNA sample, and the state keeps this money. We urge the Governor and State Legislature to share this revenue to help defray the cost to counties of implementing this beneficial program.

Views: Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III has said that the additional time and money associated with collecting the DNA samples would be marginal. You're talking a few extra swabs. But the state has reimbursed county probation departments for additional expenses they've incurred while monitoring ignition interlock devices, as per Leandra's Law. I see both sides of this.

10. Supporting Provisions Allowing Counties to Save Money in Procurements. We urge the Governor and State Legislature to support the expansion of contract “piggybacking” rights so that counties may utilize contracts let by federal, state and other local government entities, provided that such contracts are competitively bid in a manner consistent with state law. New York is one of only two states that do not already allow cooperative purchasing by local government entities. Counties must use either the OGS contract or perform our own solicitations. We believe that cooperative purchasing could result in savings for our county.

Views: This is similar to how the city is able to purchase police vehicles without going out to bid.

11. Supporting a Constitutional Amendment Banning New Unfunded State Mandates, and Urging the Governor and State Legislature to Demand Significant Relief from Existing Mandates. In 2012, the estimated net cost of state mandates equals more than 120% of Saratoga County’s property tax levy. Yet there are still new unfunded mandates on the horizon that will require legislative action to prevent, and Governor Cuomo’s Executive Budget perpetuates and in certain instances increases existing mandates. We urge the Legislature to immediately introduce and pass a constitutional amendment banning new unfunded mandates, as well as a statutory ban that would provide protection until such an amendment may be passed in final and ratified. We also urge the Governor and State Legislature to establish specific and significant savings targets, as the Medicaid Redesign Team did, for the newly-convened Mandate Relief Council and ensure that the Council’s mandate relief proposals hit these targets.

Views: Each property tax dollar the county collects, plus 20 percent, goes back to New York state. Hard to balance a budget when that happens.

Until next time,




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