On April 26th the Rye, Rye Brook and Port Chester Chapter of the League of Women Voters hosted a panel discussion on unfunded state mandates and mandate relief in New York State.  Panel members included: Rob Astorino – Westchester County Executive, Joan Feinstein – Mayor of Rye Brook, NY, Stephen Acquario – Executive Director of NYSAC (New York State Association of Counties), Peter Mustich – Superintendent of Rye Neck School District, and Sandy Galef – Assemblywoman for parts of Putnam and Westchester Counties.  What’s important to understand about the panelist is that they all have some connection to Westchester County, and that Westchester residents pay the highest property taxes in the state. 

Mr. Astorino started off (13:09) by clearly stating that the tax cap is only part of the equation when it comes to relieving the burden on New York residents and communities.  He’s right, for the tax cap to be as successful as possible it needs to be coupled with meaning mandate relief.  He defined mandates as, “something that is being forced upon a lower level of government by a higher one to do something.  Often times the mandated program … does not have the necessary amount of money attached to it.”  When the money isn’t attached the mandate is unfunded, and municipalities must pay for it, whether or not the upgrade, payment, or requirement is actually needed locally.  

Joan Feinstein (20:57) reiterated the need for local control.  All unfunded mandates do is shift burdens from the state to local governments, who then have no one below them to pass the cost on to except you, the taxpayer.  It’s a broken system.

Both Mr. Astorino and Ms. Feinstein’s points were outlined clearly in Stephen Acquario’s power point presentation (32:50).  He illustrated the impact unfunded mandates have on property taxes (33:56).  Local tax dollars pay for 40 state mandated programs.  $12 billion went to Albany to pay for just 9 of those mandated programs in 2012.  Some of those programs included Medicaid and Pension costs.  How can we possibly hope for New York taxpayers to continue to carry this burden? 

Dr. Mustich’s (41:00) discussion focused on how mandates are affecting the costs of our local school districts.  Currently his district sends more money to Albany than they receive in aid.  Out of a $36 million budget they received only $1.4 million in state aid.  That’s not even 4 percent.  The services provided by schools are not sustainable without mandate relief.  Local control is key.  Schools need to be able to determine where to put money in the best interest of their students. 

Assemblywoman Galef (48:50) took some time to tout the recent successes of Albany.  The state budget was within the tax cap.  Tier VI pension reform was passed this session.  But she still recognized that more could be done.  School districts could have transportation exchanges, municipalities could combine services, Wicks reform would save local governments 10 – 30 percent of the cost on their construction projects. 

The numbers speak for themselves.  In the past 11 years, from 2001 until now, pension costs have gone from $4 million to $79 million.  That number will continue to go up (1:00:00).  82 cents out of every dollar in property taxes goes back to Albany.  How are municipalities and school districts supposed to work under state decisions that do not take their local needs into account?  There are people in all levels of government, mayors, county executives, assemblymen, who understand that New York cannot survive under these current conditions. 

Municipalities need to be able to support construction projects, schools need to be able to meet teachers at the negotiation table, taxpayers need to be able to afford their homes, goods, and services.  Taxpayers want to be able to support their communities and the programs and services to which they have grown accustom.  What they need is for Albany to allow them to use the money the way it’s needed: locally.