Cuomo's call for local spending cuts criticized

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo at the New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo at the Capital on July 18, 2013. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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ALBANY - Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposal to cut property taxes hinges on further spending cuts by local governments and schools that some officials say aren't possible.

"It is a relief to homeowners, but it is also something else," Cuomo said of his proposal during his budget address last week. "Why is the property tax so high? Because we have too many levels of local government, period."

Some who run local governments and school districts say Cuomo's proposal isn't realistic and are scheduled to make their case during legislative budget hearings Monday.

"It just doesn't add up," Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, said of Cuomo's initiative. "We would have appreciated input on a program that would be achievable on our end."

Cuomo's budget books cite inefficiency of overlapping costs in 10,500 local government units in New York. But most are lighting, library, fire and similar service districts that add little to tax bills. The Association of Counties says there are about 1,500 villages, towns, cities and other such local government entities.

Cuomo would use state funds to freeze property taxes outside New York City for two years. In the 2014-15 fiscal year, the state would provide tax rebates to homeowners with incomes of $500,000 or less outside the city if their municipalities and school districts keep spending increases under 2 percent.

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For taxpayers to get the benefit in the second year, the municipalities would have state-approved plans to share or consolidate operations. The plans would have to save at least 1 percent in 2016-17, 2 percent the following year and 3 percent in 2018-19.

"You can't just say cut 1 percent," said Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner. She has led local officials from Long Island to western New York to explore ways to lower costs. The officials want Albany to reduce unfunded programs.

"We have the lowest employment numbers we have had historically," said Miner, whom Cuomo chose as co-chairwoman of the state Democratic Committee. " . . . We have made the tough choices. I closed a fire station, I closed a senior center."

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She continues to work with Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney to find other savings, but Miner said Albany is ignoring the biggest costs burdening cities.

Many local officials want immediate relief from public worker pensions and health care costs that are negotiated in Albany with politically powerful public employee unions.

David Albert, spokesman for the state School Boards Association, said the recession forced layoffs and deep cuts at schools and that local voters have defeated most proposals to consolidate districts. "So we aren't sure how much more can be done," Albert said.

He said the concern is compounded by Cuomo's proposed school aid increase of about 4 percent, which a survey of school boards statewide found inadequate.

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