With all the energy of a grassroots rally, a coalition of Westchester citizens, schools, businesses and local governments came together last week to launch a petition to end what they call Albany’s “mandate madness.” The message they are sending to Albany: “Stop Taking Our Power. Stop Taking Our Power to decide how our local tax dollars are spent. Stop Taking Our Power to grow our local businesses and create jobs. Stop Taking Our Power to educate our children. Pass meaningful mandate relief now!”
Echoing comments made when he introduced the county budget earlier this year, County Executive Robert Astorino said the system is broken. “When 85 cents of every property tax dollar collected by Westchester County is sent straight up the Thruway to Albany, it’s clear we’re losing local control. The time has come to put pressure on our governor and legislators to take action. They must do what they have promised and provide relief from unfunded mandates, which really are paid for with skyrocketing taxes, deteriorating schools and jobs leaving New York.”
The STOP Albany campaign officially launched during a press conference last week in White Plains, where coalition members from the Westchester County Association, the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, the Westchester Municipal Officials Association, The Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, the Westchester-East Putnam Regional PTA and Westchester County officials stood united in demanding action from Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature.
William Mooney, Jr., president of the Westchester County Association said: “The Westchester County Association advocated for the passage of the 2 percent tax cap, as we believed it would drive the mandate relief so needed by our local schools and governments. That half of the equation has not materialized and the time has come to take action with a unified voice.”
“Mandated costs are causing sky-high local taxes and we are now facing sharp cuts in services, let alone a decline in our educational system,” Mooney added in a press statement. “The reason businesses and residents come to Westchester is because of those high-quality services.”
The economic stress is being felt all over the Hudson Valley region.
Saying that public school districts have been forced to cut teachers, support services, sports, arts, music and other important programs to fund soaring costs such as pensions, standardized tests and teacher assessment requirements that don’t have adequate funding from the state, Kelly Chiarella, Westchester-East Putnam Regional PTA director, emphasized that while mandates help to protect programs and services, without the proper funding, they also threaten other important programs, especially in less affluent school districts.
“Cuts happen in urban areas before more affluent school districts, adding to the inequity in educational opportunities that are offered in our state,” Chiarella said. “If Albany demands mandates, they must help us fund them.”
At the same time, the group is worried that schools are depleting their reserves to maintain programming, a trend officials say simply cannot be sustained another year.
“Quality public education is the cornerstone of our local communities, but it is eroding before our eyes as districts cut programs with proven value and meaning to the educational experience in order to balance the budget,” said Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association. “The bottom line is simple: it’s all about Albany and its stranglehold on education and education dollars. New York State provides Westchester and Putnam school districts with only 12 cents, on average, for every dollar their taxpayers send to Albany in income tax, whereas the state average is 77 cents. The state balances its budget on the backs of our local property owners. Local school districts are being forced to make cumulative budget cuts that are detrimental to the education and development of our children.”
The Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents, which represents 76 school districts and four BOCES across Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties, added its voice to the calls for reform.
“The Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents is pleased to join with school board members, business leaders, and local and county government officials in demanding meaningful mandate reform from our state officials in Albany,” said Louis N. Wool, LHCSS president and Harrison schools superintendent. “LHCSS has offered a roadmap for these reforms, and we, along with members of this coalition, offer our direct support to any elected state officials willing to seize the leadership role on this urgent agenda.”
School districts aren’t the only ones feeling the pain.
In the Village of Ossining, for example, where the village overrode the tax cap in 2012, but not in 2013, a 72 percent increase in Police Retirement System contribution rates over the past three years and a 55 percent increase in Employee Retirement System rates in that same period led to the elimination of 16.5 positions, with 2.5 positions remaining unfilled, according to Mayor William Hanauer, who spoke at the press conference.
As president of the Westchester Municipal Officials Association, Hanauer added that a common theme runs through the budget deliberations of Westchester’s 45 municipalities, namely, that while the 2 percent tax cap “is presumably meant to help municipalities become more efficient and cost effective, it, in conjunction with the many other unfunded mandates, has only served to make it more difficult, and in some cases impossible, to deliver the services that local governments exist to provide.”
Through local public and private incentive programs, Westchester has been working to attract and retain business and create new jobs in the county. A press release from the STOP Albany coalition says companies report the high costs of doing business in New York as prohibitive, with New York ranked as having the worst business tax climate in the United States, according to the nonprofit group TaxFoundation.org.
In 2012, Albany passed legislation capping property tax increases at 2 percent, which was supposed to be the “blunt instrument” that would help to lower the tax burden borne by Westchester, where people pay the highest property taxes in the nation, the release further said. But mandate relief was also promised as part of the tax cap. And that relief is nowhere in sight.
In Westchester, just nine unfunded mandates from Albany this year will cost county government $464 million. The breakdown: Medicaid, $225 million; pensions, $91 million; preschool special-education, $42 million; public assistance, $40 million; indigent defense, $18 million; child welfare, $17 million; probation, $15 million; early intervention, $13 million; youth detention, $3 million.
“Without reform, the system will collapse of its own weight,” Astorino said.
Mooney pointed out that in addition to Medicaid and pensions, there are hundreds of other state regulations and requirements for which local schools, municipalities and businesses are stuck with the tab. “We must make Westchester and the rest of New York more affordable and prevent the insolvency of local governments and school districts,” Mooney said. “We must focus on enacting meaningful mandate relief and stand up to the politically powerful forces that oppose it.”
More information is provided at STOPAlbany.com