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Let’s get real

Wednesday, October 05, 2011 - Updated: 6:47 AM

As the county and its towns start working on their budgets for 2012, local officials have made no secret of their alarm that the new 2 percent cap on property tax levies did not come with relief from state mandates.

State mandates account for huge chunks of counties' budgets, and increases in the costs of meeting them are expected to alone exceed the 2 percent cap. This is according to figures compiled by the New York State Association of Counties.

We agree it would have been ideal had Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature somehow managed to pass a bill that addressed both issues comprehensively, but it is not an ideal world, especially in the New York State Legislature, the nation's poster boy for dysfunctional state government.

Instead, we look at the tax cap as a hammer with which to club the Legislature into cutting state mandates, especially Medicaid, "the mother of all mandates," as Assemblyman James Tedisco of Schenectady calls it. Unlike 48 other states, New York requires its counties to pay a share (up to 25 percent) of Medicaid costs not covered by the federal government (50 percent).

After all, with a 2 percent tax levy cap the counties cannot keep up with just the annual growth of state mandates, never mind such additional services like local roadwork, winter plowing, garbage disposal, etc.

The tax cap gives local legislators across the state a powerful, persuasive argument that cannot be ignored. In 2012, counties' allowed tax levy increase would be a combined $90 million, NYSAC says. Based on average annual growth during the past five years, the nine state mandates that consume over 90 percent of the county property tax levy outside New York City would increase by $279 million. Even the majority leader in the state Assembly should be able to do this math.

We say this because during the Pataki Administration Assembly Republicans proposed a five-year state takeover of the counties' share of Medicaid; the Assembly majority blocked the plan. Now it seems the Assembly will either have to get behind a state takeover of Medicaid or vote to exempt Medicaid costs from the 2 percent cap.

The latter would be shameful; it would fatally undermine the tax cap, which is somewhat faulty already, as it can be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote of a governing board. Maybe that would be a problem in more populous counties, but we cannot see it as a stumbling block here.

Which brings us back to the local hand wringing. The Board of Supervisors has for many years passed annual county budgets unanimously. So what's the problem? If, despite their best efforts, the tax levy has to exceed a 2 percent hike, the supervisors will vote for what has to be done. They can't very well shut down all county government except that which carries out state mandates.

The board has generally done a good job with budgeting, given the aforementioned mandates. We expect it will do as well again this year. Just please, please, please stop pretending the tax cap really exists here. It doesn't.

     

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