At the recent League of Women Voters forum on mandate relief, five Westchester officials from local municipalities explained how mandates handed down from the state are pushing school and city budgets to the breaking point.
By Sarah Varney
At the recent League of Women Voters forum on mandate relief, five Westchester officials from local municipalities explained how mandates handed down from the state are pushing school and city budgets to the breaking point. The conclusion voiced by state Assemblywoman Sandy Galef is that any further relief is unlikely to come this year
The forum panel comprised Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, Assemblywoman Galef, Rye Brook Mayor Joan Feinstein, Rye Neck Schools Superintendent Peter Mustich, and Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York Association of Counties. Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the League of Women Voters for New York State moderated the two-hour presentation attended by about 50 people.
Mayor Feinstein kicked off her opening remarks with a definition of “mandates” and the impact they have. “It’s a statute or regulation from either federal or state government that requires a local government to fund it,” she said. Relief from these mandates in the form of larger state contributions was supposed to be part of the tax cap but didn’t make it, she said. “I am vehemently opposed to the tax cap because it was not coupled with mandate relief,” added Feinstein. “I believe in local control of municipalities.”
The control issue is key, echoed County Executive Astorino. “These mandates put an enormous amount of pressure on our budgets and we have no control. In the years to come, you’re going to see some big jumps in your tax bills,” said Astorino. Currently, 82 cents of every property tax dollar goes to the state for its mandates, he said.
Acquario predicted the Mandate Relief Council, an eight-member panel appointed by the governor, is unlikely to suggest changes anytime soon. Aquario was a member of the first Mandate Relief Council. “This is the second one and so far they have yet to act,” he noted.
Most panelists agreed that progress toward mandate relief will be nearly impossible under the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law. “The public doesn’t really understand Triborough. It’s kind of an inside secret,” said Feinstein. Rye resident Julie Killian validated Feinstein’s point of view. “People don’t know what’s going on. If they did, they’d be marching in the streets,” she said.
Lowering pension and benefit costs for public employees also is nearly impossible, according to Galef. “There is a constitutional provision that says you can’t lower anyone’s pension. The problem is there are too many people with pensions living too long,” she said.
Galef defended the recently enacted “Tier 6” for pensions, which applies only to new employees hired after April 1, 2012. The new tier increases the retirement age for full benefits; lowers the 30-year benefits percentage to 55 and increases employee contributions up to 6% depending on salary and length of employment. “Tier 6 is an itty bitty step forward,” said Astorino.
Increasing revenues for schools might be one way to alleviate the budget squeeze, suggested Nancy Barr, a member of the Blind Brook school board. Allowing school districts to raise revenues, for example, by charging fees to local dance companies for rehearsal or lesson space could help. There is currently a regulation in place
that prohibits schools from raising revenues for themselves.
But keeping property taxes in check will remain an important piece of the puzzle. “What’s the point of having a great performing school district if we can’t afford to live here?” asked Kim Izzarelli, of Briarcliff Manor.