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.

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Kuddos to the Observer-Dispatch

May 23, 2010

The editorial board of The Utica Observer-Dispatch has hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head in calling for a metro government to replace the current hodge-podge of entities that serve their circulation area in today’s editorial.

One of the things that’s just killing New York’s future is the fact that we are stuck with a 19th century political infrastructure. We have too many local government entities the logic for which went out when every family was able to afford a car. Today when every adult in every family has his/her own car, a cell-phone and a computer, all those governmental jurisdictions represent a hugely inefficient and out-of-control expensive way to run our public sector.

Why? Local entities lack the resources including human skills to take advantage of modern technology to obtain, manage and disseminate information, to administer policy and to resolve problems. Second, we pay the cost of overlapping jurisdictions which love to quarrel over who gets to decide the speed limit for a two-block stretch of road or whether a sign can be 8 feet or 10 feet high. Sound familiar?

P.S.: Add in the pension obligations that weak-kneed legislators bless the under-productive public employees of all those jurisdictions with and we are stuck with a future where we can’t afford to do anything pro-active because we’re stuck paying for the past.

Here’s how the O-D says it: “We must stay competitive and affordable — two key elements in stabilizing and growing population. That means whittling down layers of government we no longer can afford.”

In recent years the state has made it easier (but not easy) for local governments to consolidate. MORE MUST BE DONE! I recommend that we incentivize local governments to merge. Give them more aid and tax breaks when they do so. It’s an investment that will pay off many times over — like starting a 401(k) when you’re in your 20’s.

Stay on the case O-D. This is a do or die issue for all of upstate NY.


State Budget & Funding Schools

February 22, 2010

In today’s Siena College Research Institute poll an interesting contradiction in voter thinking is revealed in hard numbers. On the one hand, voters do not want the state aid to education to be reduced; in fact they want it to be increased even if that means higher taxes. On the other hand, however, voters want the state budget to be cut and they want taxes to be lowered.

Of course we’re talking about voters in the aggregate, but that contradiction lives in the minds of many individual voters. Who ever said human beings — much less registered voters — are consistent?

The contradiction demonstrates that voters are sadly uninformed when it comes to education funding and the state budget. They view the problem from the perspective of their home community rather than from the state as a whole.

Voters are also loath publicly to oppose school spending. Yet, watch their behavior when they get a chance to vote on their local district budgets. If there is any hint of discretionary spending (on such items as libraries, art, music, etc.) and they’ll vote ‘no’.

The larger problem is complicated by the fact that governors don’t like to take on the problem of rich districts versus poor districts. There are districts across the state with large reserve funds not to mention solid tax bases, but try to reduce their next year’s state aid and they’ll run crying to their state legislators.

There is also the problem that we’ve had a laissez-faire approach to the organization of school districts. The fact is that there is unnecessary duplication of resources across the state as well as the failure to realize the benefits that centralization can bring.

Think of it this way: There are computers, fax machines, copy machines and other technology with underutilized capacity sitting in school district offices across the state. Tax payers have paid for their purchase and continue to pay for maintenance without getting the potential benefits that should accrue.

The same is true of people. Merge two districts and many of the people in the superintendent’s office from the superintendent down to the janitorial staff can become more productive without any increase in cost. Even teachers can be more productively employed. Were that not the case, then BOCES would not exist!

Here are two solutions:

1) Give districts a choice: demonstrate that you are lowering costs either on your own or as a result of sharing services with neigbhoring districts or have your state aid formula reduced.

2) Provide an incentive for small districts to merge. The State Education Department ought to be geared up to assist districts merge quickly and efficiently with lesson plans on how to reduce costs without any decline in service quality.

Other solutions, including reform of the Wicks’ Law that inflates construction costs, have been offered by a variety of organizations including the Empire Center, New Yorkers for Growth and Unshackle Upstate.

This is a great opportunity for voter education. Spread the word.


Merger Movement Mainstreams

January 25, 2010

When a topic shows up in the “Intelligence Report” section of Parade Magazine, that’s a sign that it’s something average citizens are paying attention to. Such we hope is the case for municipal merger movement which is not only on the agenda in some communities in NYS, but apparently also in places like Natchdez, Miss.

Speaking of merging government entities, Gov. Paterson missed a major opportunity to promote consolidation of school districts in his budget. While I support the progressive nature of his $1 billion state-aid cut — putting more of the burden on rich districts, there should have been a provision rewarding districts that either merge or start sharing services. Providing a financial incentive is the win-win way to get district administrators out of their parochial mind-sets. Of course, the public has to rally behind the cause as well, but when they recognize that holding up consolidation means higher school taxes most people will give up the notion that small school districts are better for their children.


Poll Question of the Week: Will Rudy challenge Kirsten?

November 22, 2009

Last week we asked our readers if they agreed with Eric Holder’s decision to try KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and his cohorts in federal court in NYC rather than by a military court? Only 36% of those who voted agreed with Holder; 59% disagreed and 5% had no opinion.

This week we’re asking you if Rudy (Guiliani) will challenge Kirsten (Gillibrand) for New York’s junior Senate seat? If he announces his decision before the end of the polling period (next Sunday, November 29), we’ll find another question for you to consider.

Ten things we have to be thankful for:

1) Andrew Cuomo for pushing government consolidation and not just attacking Wall Street.

2) John Sampson for stepping into the leadership void in the Senate.

3) Tom DiNapoli for being ten times the Comptroller his predecesor was without stealing from the voters while doing it.

4) David Paterson for trying to do his job with little leverage over the Legislature.

5) Doug Hoffman for giving conservative voters in the 23rd district a choice.

6) Bill Owens for running a thoughtful, clean race.

7) Unshackle Upstate for not letting the Legislature forget about upstate.

8) Siena College Research Institute for their monthly political polls.

9) WCNY for giving Susan Arbetter a platform.

10) My 4 editors (Janet, Linda, Joe and Greg) who get up early in the morning to provide 300+ links to news stories, editorials and columns on NYS gov’t & politics.

Ten things we are not thankful for:

1) The reckless self-serving June coup and its leaders.

2) The leaders of the Assembly and Senate who negotiated a budget last spring that was irresponsible in raising spending.

3) Governor Paterson for signing last spring’s budget.

4) The leaders of the Legislature who continue to try to raise money to balance the state budget with gimmicks and one-shots instead of having the courage to cut spending.

5) Local government officials who refuse to face the reality of the current fiscal climate.

6) Local officials who put their own interests ahead of the public’s by refusing to consider the benefits that sharing services and government consolidation offer.

7) The state’s newspaper editorial writers who criticize the Legislature without being willing to take a stand on issues such as where to cut spending or how to cap escalating property taxes.

8) The people going back 2 or 3 admininstrations who approved spending $22 billion of Highway Funds on projects for which they were not intended.

9) The managers at Newsday, the NY Post and other media websites who allowed their programmers and web designers to create websites that sacrifice content for the sake of design.

10) AOL, Yahoo and the other email service providers that block the Empire Page’s emails to our subscribers and friends.

On balance we’re thankful for all of our subscribers and friends. Have a happy!


The Weekend’s Best (& Worst) from the Empire Page News Links Service

August 2, 2009

Subscribers to the Empire Page this weekend were treated to excellent reportage as well as insightful analysis and opinion. One must be impressed by the quality of journalism coming out of New York’s newspapers in spite of layoffs and hard economic times. Note that most of the breaking stories are first generated by the state’s smaller papers and only later picked up by the wire services and the state’s larger dailies.

This weekend’s prize for the highest quality coverage is a tie between the Plattsburgh Press Republican and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.

On Sunday the Press Republican hit journalism paydirt on two energy stories. The most significant is the news that talks are underway between the New York Power Authority (NYPA) and Canadian energy producers to import “up to 2,000 megawatts of power from multiple sources, including hydropower from Canada.” Cheap power would be a boon to northern New York’s economy. The second energy piece covered the St. Regis Mohawk’s desire for cheap power to help run its casino and bingo hall.

The D&C had the best state news coverage this weekend with an assist from Gannett’s Albany bureau. While Gannett provided an overview piece on the potential for incumbents losing their seats in the next election, the D&C attended a meeting where a local legislator got an earful from voters who are angry are about high taxes and what’s been going on in Albany.

Top Editorials

The Poughkeepsie Journal on Sunday hammered the Legislature on two points – disclosure of pork spending and allocation of internal resources. Their mild conclusion: “A level playing field would be best for all New Yorkers.”

The Glens Falls Post Star takes the state to task for failing to pay its taxes to the city and county of Saratoga. I like their suggestion that those entities seize the track and put it up for sale. The taxpayers of New York would surely make out much better from a privately held track operation in Saratoga than what we get from NYRA.

The Kingston Freeman editorial board recaps the sorry story of what went on in the State Senate in June with the added footnote that individual legislators in their coverage area don’t seem to have learned any lessons from the fiasco. “All of which leads to the conclusion that no reform of Albany worthy of the name will come from within,” writes the Freeman. “Only the voters can clean these houses.”

Best (& Worst) Columns

Tom Carroll, long-time charter school champion and activist, has six suggestions for incoming State Education Commissioner David Steiner in a piece published Sunday in the Albany Times Union. Let’s hope Steiner incorporates Carroll’s ideas into a plan to shake up the bureaucracy in Albany. No part of our government gets less value for the cost or is as critical for New York’s future than our educational system.

Casey Seiler, also writing in the Times Union, interjects a bit of humor into the down on Albany theme, suggesting that Steve Wynn be required to purchase the Empire State Plaza and the Capitol building (which he could then lease back to the state) in order to get the lucrative VLT contract at Aqueduct that he desires.

The Prize for the worst column of the weekend goes to Michael Marinaccio, supervisor of the Town of Dickinson and president of the Broome County Association of Towns and Villages. Marinaccio’s column in the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin, which I am not criticizing for publishing it, is called “Consolidations gone wild”. Marinaccio is critical of the newly passed legislation introduced at the behest of the state’s attorney general and signed into law by Gov. Paterson is designed to make it easier for the public to bring local government consolidation to the voters.

Marinaccio fails to state that the reason the law change was needed was that the prior requirements were so onerous that incumbent politicians could easily prevent consolidations no matter how much desired by the majority of the residents of the affected jurisdictions.

Further Marinaccio’s criticisms fail on two grounds. First, no consolidations will go through without voter approvals. Second, although Marinaccio dislikes some of the procedural rules he had a chance to fix them up front by participating in drawing up the legislation! He had to know that reform was on the table and because of his position had multiple channels to provide input – through the state associations that he is a member of and through his local legislators.

While the title Marinaccio’s piece is designed to cast fear in the minds of the public, the problem with consolidations is that they are not happening fast enough. Case in point: a study reported today in the Jamestown Post-Journal and other papers points out that school consolidations in eight counties in Western New York would result in a savings of $133 million a year!

Of course many incumbent politicians are not in favor of consolidation. The choice is simple: continue to pay high property taxes to support the salaries, pensions, cars, offices, computers and other equipment for supervisors and other local officials or consolidate.

Footnote on Newspaper Websites: Why are they Sooo Slow?

Have you noticed how long it takes newspaper websites — even including the Empire Page — to load these days? That’s because we are jamming our home pages with videos and all kinds of multi-media ads.

The Value Click ad server network is most often the primary culprit in slowing down the loading of the Empire Page. I’m considering kicking them off the home page. Let me know if you think I should.

Newspapers however don’t have the luxury of demanding faster load times from those ad networks. It’s one of the consequences of the changes taking place in the economies of print journalism. At the very time when newspapers need to generate more traffic on their websites, they are dependent on ad networks whose primary client is the advertiser.

Links to all of the above items PLUS 400 news stories, editorials and columns drawn from dozens of news websites this past weekend are available to subscribers of The Empire Page for less than a quarter a day. Click here to subscribe.


Today’s Top Columns & Editorials

May 31, 2009

Two themes emerge out of this week’s news coverage and opinion pieces — ethics reform and government consolidation.

Ethics Reform

The Times Union continues to provide the most nuanced reporting on the topic of ethics reform. In today’s lead editorial they applaud the direction of Gov. Paterson’s latest proposal, but criticize some of the particulars.

Divorcing the ethics commission from political influences seems like an obvious requirement for any reform to have a chance of being successful. How to do it, however, is very tricky. The TU chides the governor for trying to maintain the upper hand in the selection of his proposed commission. The TU also identifies additional necessary and desirable measures currently before the legislature but without offering hope that they will become law in 2009.

The Times Union offers another viewpoint on the issue in its opinion section by publishing a piece by Karl Sleight, former executive director of the Ethics Commission. Sleight suggests that a half a century’s efforts to insert ethics into politics and government has floundered in part due to unrealistic expectations. “[T]he goal is illusory,” Sleight writes. “Ethics laws do not make people more ethical.” His caveats concerning due process and the need to focus on activities that promote transparency should be kept in mind as today’s leaders consider the governor’s proposal.

Consolidation: Gathering Momentum Despites Its Critics

The introduction of new legislation by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo that would make it easier for the public to push through local government consolidation has drawn a good deal of attention in New York’s press.

The New York Times puts the issue in a regional context. The consolidation movement in New Jersey is at least a year ahead of New York’s, but New Jersey which has more muncipalities per capita than any state in the union, started further back. In Connecticut consolidation efforts are focusing on the courts — which is also an issue for NYS. (See The Empire Page Interview on New York Courts).

The Times focuses on the problem in NYS of special taxing districts, where “some of those districts have more cars and supervisors than workers.” A quick solution to that problem proposed previously by this writer is to require that ALL special taxing districts sunset unless reinstated every five years.

The Journal News did a better job than the Times did of finding opponents to consolidation. In addition to State Senators Oppenheimer and Morahan, who are not convinced the promised savings would result, the Journal News talked to Liz Feld, mayor of Larchmont (who was interviewed by The Empire Page recently on tax and budget issues). Feld told the Journal News that “pension contributions, unfunded mandates and health care for state employees” not local government inefficiency is what’s driving up costs.

The Journal News also identified one special interest group – Volunteer Firefighters — who have a strong argument from being removed from the consolidation legislation. While the Firefighters have a case, there’s no evidence as Newsday’s editorial board pointed out yesterday that Cuomo’s bill was aimed at volunteer departments on Long Island or elsewhere.

Neither is it the case that Cuomo’s proposal was put forth as an alternative to addressing immediate tax issues as Feld implies. While Albany may prefer to deal with consolidation because it has little immediate effect on them, as the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle argues today, action should be taken before the end of this year’s session to address four major problems facing New York: (1) property taxes, (2) state spending, (3) costs being pushed to local government and (4) easing the path to consolidation.

Further it is clear that addressing those four should be a higher priority than ethics reform which was botched in 2007 when Gov. Spitzer didn’t take enough time to sort through the thorns to come up with a viable solution. If Gov. Paterson wants to revive his popularity with the public, he needs to focus on the getting those four problems solved.