Wary of fiscal overlord option

An undated file photo of NYS Comptroller Thomas

An undated file photo of NYS Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. (Credit: Daniel Acker)

Dan Janison

Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison, Dan Janison

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday for 10

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Ever so cautiously, top state elected officials have broached the possible creation of an appointed board or system of boards to oversee local governments in deep fiscal distress.

Their caution makes political sense.

Outside fiscal control -- the approximate equivalent of a public entity falling into receivership -- can be legislative dynamite, the stuff of last resort.

But state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in an Albany news conference Tuesday, "We're going to see if there might be some recommendations that we would make should there be a move to having additional oversight, including control boards, down the road."

One suggestion, recently floated, is a "super control board" for struggling municipalities. For now, the odds look long against creating such a widely empowered body.

"We're evaluating what some of the options may be," DiNapoli said. But he was quick to warn that there is no "one-size-fits-all" model.

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was asked about a "super control board" later on Tuesday, he noted that boards now exist in Nassau County and the city of Yonkers, and others have been created, ad hoc, elsewhere in the past.

"The question would be: How do you use that mechanism going forward?" Cuomo said. "You'd have to see what the specifics are -- what locality, what municipality, what's the problem, what are you trying to solve. Before you design the solution you need to understand the problem."

Municipal elected officials can be counted on to fight curbs on their autonomy -- even if circumstances are dire enough to demand the borrowing guarantees, contract suspensions, or other measures that an emergency takeover might offer. Instead, local leaders keep asking for fewer legal mandates on how they spend and govern. Mandate relief is the battle cry, with pensions and health-care costs the biggest concerns.

But one municipal administrator who asked not to be identified argued that the threat of a control board has forced elected officials in his Long Island jurisdiction to take painful steps such as spending cuts and revenue increases that were needed to balance the budget, even temporarily.

Last week, when DiNapoli released a report describing widespread local fiscal stress, he called for a new focus on accurate measurement of revenue and spending trends. In turn, the New York State Conference of Mayors responded on its website: "It will take more than just analyzing budgets." The conference cited the business-backed "Let New York Work" agenda that calls for such moves as ending automatic "step" increases in public employee wages after a contract expires -- a follow-up to the cheaper pension tier enacted earlier this year.

"I think it's incredibly ironic that you'd have statewide officials talking about imposing restrictions on municipalities," said Republican State Sen. Jack Martins, the former Mineola mayor, who chairs the Local Governments Committee. "Though the state has done a better job over the last two years, I think the idea of a 'super control board' or oversight board simply doesn't make sense."

"Each community is unique," said Martins, a first-termer who has sponsored mandate-relief bills, and faces Democrat Daniel Ross at the polls in November. "Each community has specific reasons for the position it is in, and each community has to be evaluated individually."

Only in anxious times would a "super control board" even draw discussion as a systemic solution.