The governor’s State of the State address this week caused me to turn my attention to the village’s relationship to our state government and the attending ramifications of decisions made in Albany.
In his speech, Gov. Cuomo quoted Gov. Al Smith saying, “Let’s look at the record” to use as a rubric. From the village’s standpoint, the record of the 2012 year in Albany was one of inaction and thus failure. It was a lost opportunity to help the taxpayer – the most important special interest group. Relief from the over 200 unfunded state mandates that are crippling every government, large and small, was nonexistent.
The following is just a sampling of necessary reforms/measures that either never left committee and in some cases never even had a sponsor to go forward as a bill:
The MTA payroll tax costing village taxpayers half of a tax point every year it was not repealed.
The Wicks Law which results in municipal construction projects costing 20 percent to 30 percent more than the same projects in the private sector was left unchanged.
The Taylor Law provisions requiring compulsive arbitration with police and fire unions when contract negotiations reach an impasse were not amended or stricken. The Taylor Law allows an arbitrator who has no ties to a community, shoulders none of the tax burden and does not have to consider “ability to pay” as a major factor in his decision, to make final contract determinations for municipalities.
The legislature also failed to amend the 2 percent tax cap legislation to allow municipalities to exclude funds for major infrastructure repairs and matching grant monies, as is allowed for school districts, from the cap limitation. As a result, many communities are not seeking the benefit of federal funds, nor repairing municipal infrastructure. The tax cap legislation created a powerful disincentive for governments to undertake capital improvements, even though New York has one of the most aging infrastructures.
Most egregious was the lip service given to the albatross around all our necks, the pension benefit system. Instead of confronting the current unsustainable fiscal matrix, the legislature instead created a Tier VI pension level. This level will only affect new hires who then retire 20 years hence. Not only is no community hiring because of the current crushing financial obligations, relief 20 years away is useless.
I would proffer that our elected officials should have instead led the way by changing their own defined benefit pension plan to a defined contribution plan, thereby replicating the retirement arrangement of 80 percent of their constituents.
As illustration, if a government worker making an average of $60,000 annually retires after 20 years, his counterpart in the private sector doing the same would need to have a $1.3 million nest egg just to replicate the state pension benefits, not even taking into account the cost of the generous state retirement health care package.
All of the above unfunded obligations are unsustainable and causing local government to continually decrease municipal services.
To bring it home, last year Bronxville got a bill from the state for $3,205,376 to cover our portion of the over 200 state mandates and in turn we received $64,713 in direct state aid. Put another way, in the first year of the 2 percent tax cap, Albany sent Bronxville a bill for increases in mandate costs that equated to a 4.5 percent tax increase to villagers.
Net net, continued poor fiscal stewardship, mismanagement at the highest levels and elected officials who lack the courage to confront special interests will keep tax bills rising and local services diminishing.
To add to this disheartening picture, the state comptroller just released a report delineating New York’s debt burden as one of the highest in the nation. Our debt per capita of $3,253 is nearly three times the median of all states and second highest among peer states.
New York’s outstanding debt now totals $63.3 billion, second only to California’s $96.4 billion and more than 80 percent higher than third place finisher, New Jersey.
To make matters worse, 95 percent of the debt incurred in the last 10 years was obligated without legislative or voter approval. Article VII of the state constitution prohibits issuance of any debt unless approved by both the legislature and voters. To circumvent this check and balance, “public authorities” were created to avoid voter approval.
The Westchester Municipal Officials Association, which represents every community in the county and in which the village is an active participant, met last week to craft our list of needed legislative reform.
Since absolutely none of our priorities/initiatives were addressed in the last legislative session, in a sad commentary, the document was simply re-dated.
As Mark Twain said in 1866, “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session.”