Hudson Valley leaders skeptical that Cuomo will unveil local fix in budget speech Tuesday

New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives

New York State Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives his State of the Budget speech in the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany. (Jan. 17, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Hudson Valley leaders predicted Gov. Andrew Cuomo would make gestures to help cash-strapped school districts and municipalities in his budget speech Tuesday.

But although they welcomed a 4 percent increase in school aid and other expected proposals, few anticipated sweeping changes that would allay their main gripe: state rules that compel local governments to provide essential services without giving them sufficient revenue to pay for them.

"He has very, very hard decisions that are before him because there is clearly not enough money to do everything in the state or in our region," said Jonathan Drapkin, president of Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, a Newburgh think tank. "If he wants to remain fiscally conservative, which he does, he can only do so much. There just isn't an unlimited pool of money."

Cuomo's spokesman declined to comment.

Scheduled for 2 p.m. in Albany, the governor's speech to state lawmakers will demonstrate how he intends to fund initiatives laid out in his ambitious State of the State speech earlier in January while also bridging a projected $1 billion shortfall. The Legislature is supposed to approve the budget before April 1.

Cuomo, a Democrat who for months has enjoyed a popularity rating of around 70 percent, laid out a host of widely praised progressive proposals in his State of the State address, from expanded prekindergarten for distressed schools like those in Yonkers and Mount Vernon to a new "green bank" that would leverage $1 billion to attract clean tech businesses.

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However, critics, including the Hudson Valley's county executives, said the governor didn't do enough to address unfunded state mandates that were forcing local governments to either raise taxes or slash popular programs.

"Westchester will be looking for serious treatment of mandate relief that helps local communities right now," said Ned McCormack, communications director for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, a Republican. "The current situation, where 85 cents of every dollar raised through the county's property tax levy goes to Albany to pay for just nine state mandates, is simply not sustainable."

A Cuomo-supported measure that requires voters to approve any property tax hikes of more than 2 percent is squeezing local leaders, especially schools, said Assemb. Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale). Educators won't be able to maintain quality if they are always struggling to remain within the cap, she said.


However, Paulin added that she believed the governor would at least partially address such criticisms by offering schools help in his budget.

"We know they'll be some increase for the schools," she said. "It's relief at least to know that."

The governor also has pledged not to increase state mandates when he funds his expanded education reforms, said state Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown), a member of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference that broke ranks with other Democrats to form a coalition leadership with Republicans in the State Senate.

"The governor has stated that he wants to make our education system better, extending the school day or school year, and he's talking about how that would have zero cost to local taxpayers and school districts," Carlucci said. "It will be exciting to see the ways he's funding that."

Educators were less sanguine. Past cuts in state aid have taken their toll while pension, health care, special education, transportation and other costs skyrocketed. Because taxpayers were understandably reluctant to vote in favor of more taxes, education is suffering, they said.

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"The 4 percent [increase] is an abandonment of the state's constitutional responsibility to provide a sound, basic education," said Bob Dillon, executive director of the Mid-Hudson School Study Council, a research institute based at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh.

Harrison School Superintendent Louis Wool was more diplomatic, but he agreed with Dillion's assessment.

"It certainly won't address what has been lost in the past years," Wool said.

Cuomo, however, might surprise people during the course of the year, Drapkin said. The governor managed to speedily enact gun control legislation. Drapkin said that perhaps Cuomo will make a dramatic move on mandate relief in the future if the economy improves and the state raises more funds.

"The governor can't possibly satisfy everybody," Drapkin said.

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