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McKinstry: Cities go a-begging in Albany

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano applauds Assemb. Shelley Mayer

Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano applauds Assemb. Shelley Mayer after she is sworn in by Thomas R. Daly inside the Roosevelt Ballroom in Yonkers. (Jan. 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

Brother, can you spare a million?

It's known as the Tin Cup Brigade: the parade of politicians who appear before state lawmakers in Albany pleading for more money.

It's a ritual that occurs each year after the governor proposes a budget.

This year's testimony came after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's $143-billion proposal for 2013-14 included no increase in aid to municipalities.

The brigade, which appeared earlier this week before a legislative committee, included New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the mayors of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers -- the executives of the big five cities.

This year's "ask" couldn't fit into a tin cup. The mayors want change, and not the spare kind, either.

They shouldn't count on much more money, since the state is strapped as well. So Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano, in addition to asking for help -- including lump sums of money and Band-Aids -- he called for reforms like switching over to a 401(k) style pension plan for future retirees.

It's not what you'd expect to hear from a Democrat, but it shows times are really that tough. Much like getting buckets of aid, a change in the pension system is a long-shot, as is relief from those expenses passed down from the state.

"There's not a helluva a lot of room, in fact there's no room," Spano told me recently of the city's $955 million budget and the city's dire fiscal trajectory. "We start out with a deficit." For Spano, this week's visit to Albany was a sort of role-reversal. The former state assemblyman used to listen to these pleas, not make them.

Yonkers and so many other communities routinely start out in a budget hole because their projected costs, which include automatic increases in labor contracts and expenses like pensions and health care, trump what they can raise when a relatively new state law caps any growth in property taxes at 2 percent a year.

The city has an $86-million deficit this year, which is expected to grow to $400 million to $500 million by 2016, mostly because of pensions, health care, and any number of other bills spiraling out of control.

Under New York's celebrated property tax cap, Yonkers would only be able to add $6.6 million next year, unless of course, city leaders bust the cap again, which may be like betting on a three-legged horse over at the raceway.

There's just no way tax increases could cover escalating costs that are expected to grow by tens of millions of dollars in the coming years. For that reason, localities see bankruptcy or state financial control boards as possibilities. In some cases, those options may only be a few years off if nothing changes.

"We can't do it with taxes," said Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, whose pension bills have swelled to $32 million this year from $2.4 million in 2001. "It's not enough [for the state] to cut a check."

Few leaders are blind to their fiscal problems, but there's still a lot of uncertainty about how to fix them.

Proposed remedies like Cuomo's -- to spread out, or "smooth," pension costs -- are on the table, but it's not clear whether that's a solid solution.

Miner, Spano and these other mayors want to start a conversation before it's too late. Their appearance before lawmakers was part of that dialogue.

It's unlikely this brigade will get any extra money in their tin cups this year, and absent long-term changes, these officials will be rattling them again next year, and the year after.

The brigade is making noise -- let's hope Albany is listening.

Gerald McKinstry is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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