McKinstry: The cap is working, but where's the mandate relief?

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, talks with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, left, talks with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in Albany, N.Y in 2011. Photo Credit: AP

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Gerald McKinstry Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Gerald McKinstry

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was in Pleasantville in 2011 touting a 2 percent property tax cap, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino was among many leaders who joined him for the fanfare.

After the ceremonial front-lawn signing -- similar to many others held across the state -- Astorino, a Republican, and others there contended that a cap was a decent first step but wouldn't mean much if the government didn't address all those pesky costs passed down to localities: mandates.

In fact, Astorino then called the tax cap a "sham" if it wasn't wedded to mandate relief.

Judging from his remarks in the years since, you could say the cap-mandate marriage hasn't been consummated -- not exactly. At least not in way that has the neighbors talking.

But voters like the cap. After two successful years of it, including the recent school-budget votes when as many as 96 percent of districts kept taxes within allowable limits, voters showed their approval. As a Newsday editorial recently put it, the cap is acting like a "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

And let's face it: The public isn't paying too much attention to mandates.

Astorino and others are trying to change that. Last week they formed a grassroots coalition called "Stop Taking Our Power."

The message is directed at Albany, and members are calling on the governor and State Legislature to deliver the second blow of the one-two assault on property taxes. They want state lawmakers, as the county executive recently put it, to stop governing with their "heads in the sand."

"The system is horribly broken," Astorino said recently at an event announcing an online petition drive at www.stopalbany.com. "In fairness to the governor, he did push through a tax cap. . . . But we're still waiting for the spending relief he promised -- - and that's the problem."

Mandates are a neither fun nor interesting topic, and not all of them are terrible. A vexing mandate for Westchester County isn't the same as one for the White Plains School District, or say, the City of Yonkers.

These bills come in many forms, including pension benefits, Medicaid and onerous work rules. What they have in common is that they are passed down the food chain from Albany. And local taxpayers end up paying the bill.

In Westchester County, such costs chew up roughly 85 cents out of every dollar of the county's $548 million tax levy (the budget is $1.7 billion). "That leaves just a dime and a nickel for us in Westchester," Astorino said.

In Rockland, they exceed the levy, leaving the county to make up its spending with sales and real estate taxes and other types of revenues and fees.

For every dollar committed to bills that must be paid, it's the non-mandated services -- typically the ones taxpayers appreciate -- that get axed. Think bus routes, pools, parks, festivals and fireworks.

Cuomo created a Mandate Relief Council in 2011 and followed up with taking over the growth in Medicaid costs, pension reforms with the creation of a new tier for state workers, a smoothing option where localities can borrow against the long-term savings from that new tier, and some other proposals such as a restructuring board for municipalities in distress.

But we haven't heard much from that council recently and those reforms aren't enough -- not in the short run.

The governor maintains that governments in crisis ought to consider cutting services and consolidating, especially since there are roughly 10,500 taxing entities in this state.

He has a point on consolidations. But while voters complain of high taxes, they like their schools, police and local identity. It's tough to sell losing that.

There's the rub.

Whatever you believe, the financial trajectory of New York and all of its governments doesn't look good.

Yes. We need fewer mandates. And Yes. We need fewer layers of government.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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