Budget pressure builds at state and Yates County levels

Gwen Chamberlain
Assemblyman Phil Palmesano (left) and State Sen. Tom O’Mara talk with grape grower Don Tones and Fox Run winery owner Scott Osborn after their meeting with Yates County and local officials.

The pressure is on in Albany to adopt the state budget by the April 1 deadline. That means the pressure will also be on local officials to provide services to their community without excessive local tax increases.

Add the possibility of a cap on property tax increases, and there’s even more strain at the local level.

But, as Yates County Legislator Douglas Paddock asks, is there really an incentive for the Albany machine to provide relief from state mandates, or will all the pressure be on local officials to cut spending and programs?

Those challenges brought State Sen. Tom O’Mara and Assemblyman Phil Palmesano to a meeting with members of the Yates County Legislature, several county department heads and other local officials on March 19.

For about an hour, the two listened to a local perspective of the state budget process and other issues with state government, and in the end, it was clear the Yates County officials are tired of the position they’re in.

Yates County Legislature Chairman Taylor Fitch told O’Mara and Palmesano, “Our government in New York State was set up to be a partnership between the state and county governments to provide services to our people in New York State. I believe this partnership has fallen apart. New York State has instead become autocratic, telling counties what they have to do by the use of mandates. New York State then changes the funding stream they had set aside for mandates, leaving the counties responsible for the shortfall. I fault this governor, past governors and you, the members of our New York State legislature for this.

“When you give funding for a mandate and then take it away but leave the mandate, you are putting costs on the backs of our property owners. This is unacceptable and must be changed. By our county spending all our property tax dollars on your New York State mandates it leaves little if any for Yates County programs that are important to our quality of life and economic growth.”

Legislative vice chair Robert Multer outlined the levels of mandates, their costs and the amount of state aid received. See chart above.

County Administrator Sarah Purdy said 88 percent of the 2010 county property tax levy went to state mandated services. “It’s really not a county property tax, it’s actually a state property tax. The problem with the tax cap is the first thing that will go is the local programs,” she said, adding, “We are already in the process of looking at what local programs will have to go.”

The county agreed last week to study the possibility of selling the county’s home health care program, which is not a mandated program, and although it’s run quite efficiently according to Fitch, it still costs local tax dollars.

“The residents of our county have become very accustomed to our home health aides and home health nurses. This is a huge hit to them — one that is emotional as well as financial,” Purdy said.

The county legislators covered a number of topics before O’Mara and Palmesano left for their next meeting — a group of Southern Tier School Superintendents.

O’Mara said he is not in favor of a property tax cap being part of the budget. He had voted in favor of a tax cap earlier in the year, but the conversations at that stage included mandate relief. Now, he says, “I’m not going to be supportive of a cap without major mandate relief.”

Legislator Tim Dennis asked both men how they would vote on a budget that was acceptable in every other way, but included a property tax cap. O’Mara said there would be a lot of politics involved in such a scenario, and if the budget was voted down, it could shut down government operations.

O’Mara said, “Property tax is out of control in this state. My focus is to control taxes at all levels.”

Other issues that were discussed included Civil Service delays that have held up progress in replacing the Yates County Director of Emergency Management, legislation for selling wine in grocery stores, funding for marine patrols, and lengthy delays in reimbursement from the state.

State Mandates impact on Yates County Budget