Mandate Relief: A Proposal

February 23, 2013

Localities across NYS have been begging for ‘mandate relief’ for years, but their appeals have fallen on deaf ears in Albany. Until now governors and legislators have been loath to give localities a break on requirements they felt were necessary when they passed them. The concept threatens to open a Pandora’s box of allowing localities to ignore Albany’s dictates whenever they feel like it.

At the same time, we know that many of these same localities are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Just this week Moody’s Investors Service reiterated its negative outlook for local governments across the country. (See: http://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-Outlook-for-US-local-governments-remains-negative-in-2013–PR_266803) Facing heavy public safety budgets and rapidly expanding pension obligations they cannot afford, localities are screaming for help.

Gov. Cuomo’s solution is to allow them to borrow against future savings. Not only is this questionable in terms of whether the NYS Constitution allows it, but it’s another short-term solution. What happens if that’s not enough?

Here’s a solution that addresses both short term and long-term needs.

The Governor and Legislature should offer temporary mandate relief to localities in proportion to the extent to which they move either to share services or merge with other jurisdictions.

In other words Albany ought to offer this carrot: We’ll give you a break on certain mandates if you show us that you are capable of finding solutions to local governance that cost taxpayers less while improving the quality of the services you deliver.

Mandate relief ought to match up with the specific efficiency improvement employed. In other words, if two school districts merge there ought to be a list of education mandates the combined district can choose to ignore for the next three or five years while they manage the transition. Same with towns, villages, cities or counties that incorporate other jurisdictions. So, if the city of Schenectady dissolves its governmental functions into the County, the County would be given temporary relief from having to comply with cumbersome mandates to help it digest the added obligations.

The State must continue to offer consolidation assistance so that localities don’t offer the excuse of they don’t know how to do it.

I would not, however, like this concept to defer the State from looking at mandate relief that it can offer across the board. There are surely some requirements that no longer make sense in proportion to the cost imposed on the localities. Some mandates, however, ought to be retained and state officials will be able to make a stronger case for those when unneeded mandates are eliminated.


Consolidation is still the best solution

February 21, 2013

The focus of the debate today is on the tax cap. NYSUT has gone to court to overturn it; while the Business Council opposes that move. Both have their points. A rigid tax cap doesn’t allow for local needs. Although the 2% limit can be breached, there’s a cost in terms of people power and money to do so. On the other side without a cap, local government administrators lack any incentive to increase efficiency.

Gov. Cuomo’s solution––borrowing from future pension savings––has not won over a number of mayors and other officials. (See Stephanie Miner’s op ed “Cuomo to Cities: Just Borrow” in the New York Times)

The long-term solution is still consolidation. I’ve made this argument many times before. So if you don’t like my reasons, consider another data point offered by UB Prof. Bruce Fisher. Writing in ArtVoice, Fisher points to the success the cities of Toronto and Montreal have had with regionalization — merging small inefficient local governments into their regional structure. (See “Bashing Cuomo, Ducking Mergers“)

Let’s review the facts:

    Current jurisdictional lines–city, village, town and even county boundaries–no longer reflect current demographic and technological conditions. They lead to underutilized equipment and personnel, to gaps and duplication, to bureaucratic and political infighting, poor management, fraud and the bottom line poor service delivery.
    Those who oppose consolidation are the primary beneficiaries–those whose personal pockets are lined with cash today and in retirement. They get to act like kings and queens in the name of their subjects. I thought we’d gotten rid of royalty two hundred fifty years ago!
    Consolidation can result in lower taxes and better services. Examples abound (see Fisher). But we’re not just talking about something that would be nice to have happen. For Upstate New York, consolidation is a necessity!
    In review, lots of individuals and business owners in Upstate New York would rather be elsewhere. To keep them where they are taxpayers are taking on the chin. In order to make Upstate desirable we need fewer government entities, lower energy prices and lower taxes. Consolidation gives us two out of the three.

The State Department and our friends at the Government Law Center of Albany Law School and the Rockefeller College are doing their best to help local governments face the music, but the progress is too slow. Read the Comptroller’s audit reports of local government financial management and you’ll see that too many tax dollars are being mismanaged if not outright stolen.

The solution: Increase the incentives AND the penalties for not consolidating. Also, we need political leaders who will carry this water. Tell your constituents that they’re putting nails in their communities’ coffins every day they delay in merging with other jurisdictions. That includes some counties which ought to merge given how few people live within their borders.

Final point: Isn’t consolidation a solution both NYSUT and the Business Council could agree on? Wouldn’t both win with stronger school districts and a friendlier climate for the business community?