WESTCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: ALBANY GIVES NO RELIEF FROM MANDATES

 

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    As state lawmakers wound down their session in June with a late flurry of adopted bills, a coalition of business and government leaders, school and municipal officials rallied in Westchester to push for a vote in Albany that would “stop the mandate madness.”

    The STOP Albany coalition prodded Assembly members from Westchester to get behind a bill, already adopted by the state Senate, that would require New York to fund most programs or services it mandates for local school districts and municipalities. With the state’s 2 percent property tax cap in effect, unfunded mandates are expected to be increasingly onerous locally and force revenue-strapped municipalities and schools to cut essential services.

    So what progress was made this year in mandate relief?

    “None,” said Lisa Davis, executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association, a STOP Albany coalition member. “There absolutely hasn’t been any movement.”

    The Assembly never voted on the mandate relief bill. Introduced in February, the legislation languished through this year’s session in the Assembly’s Committee on Local Governments.

    “Unfortunately, the Assembly didn’t see this as a priority,” said state Sen. Greg Ball, the Putnam County Republican and former Assembly member who helped pass the mandate relief bill in the Senate. “I am hopeful that we can get this bill and other immediate mandate relief measures passed in the next legislative session, before it’s too late.”

    “There have been similar bills in the past as well,” Davis noted. “I think it’s just business as usual and perhaps a bit of the ostrich with the head in the sand, not appropriately acknowledging the structures that have been put in place and how it impacts local municipalities and school districts and local taxpayers.”

    “As we start to see degradation of services, whether it’s in the schools or local communities, people are starting to take notice,” Davis said. As taxpayers begin to personally feel the effects of the tax cap and unfunded mandates on public services, more are likely to join in the calls for relief, she said.

    The Westchester County Association, another STOP Albany coalition member, broke ranks in 2011 with municipalities and school districts in the county when it supported the property tax cap proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said Amy Allen, WCA managing director of advocacy and international business. The tax cap was expected to curb the flight of businesses from tax-heavy New York and help attract more companies and investment to the state and region.

    “The whole point of passing the tax cap was to force the mandate relief issue,” Allen said. Mandate relief legislation was expected to follow passage of the tax cap.

    “Part A has happened,” she said, “and Part B hasn’t. We kind of got sold a bill of goods, if you will.”

    Cuomo did create an 11-member Mandate Relief Council that includes four members of the Legislature and seven top officials in Cuomo’s Cabinet and administration. Headed by Lawrence “Larry” Schwartz, secretary to the governor and once the top deputy to former Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano, the council is empowered to review and seek public comment on specific mandates at the request of council members or local governments and school districts.

    Applying a cost-benefit analysis and weighing other factors in their review, the council determines whether a mandate is being imposed in an “unsound, unduly burdensome or costly manner so as to necessitate that it be eliminated or reformed.” It can then ask the governor to repeal or modify a regulatory mandate imposed by a state agency or refer a state law to the governor for repeal or modification by both the Assembly and Senate.

    In its first year of operation in 2012, the council reviewed 65 requests for mandate changes. Only 14 were deemed unsound, unduly burdensome or costly by a council majority. For each of those, the council urged the governor and Legislature “to work together to address this issue.”

    Among resolutions received from Westchester County, the council sided with the Bedford Central School District in its request to eliminate mandated class sizes and teacher-student ratios for students with disabilities and resource rooms. The district estimated its savings without the mandate at $500,000 to $1 million and statewide savings to school districts at $7 billion to $10 billion. The council approved a like request from the Tarrytown school district.

    “Not all mandates are created equally and some have real value,” Ball said. “For example, many point to the mandates involving special education, yet I find many of these critical to providing a safety net to working families raising special needs children. Yet there are dozens of examples of mandated testing, reporting and evaluations that cost districts millions and tie the hands of teachers and administrators. These must be reviewed.”

    “From burdensome testing requirements, local reporting nightmares, administrative bureaucracy to very specific and costly MS4 (municipal separate storm sewer system) requirements, there are a myriad of opportunities for Albany to deliver far-reaching and substantive mandate relief,” Ball said. “Homeowners are drowning in taxes and municipalities and school districts are drowning in unfunded mandates.”

    In Westchester, Davis and Allen said the STOP Albany coalition will resume its campaign to end unfunded mandates when legislators return to Albany.

    “This is not the first year that something like this (mandate relief bill) has been introduced and it won’t be the last,” Davis said. (ARTICLE)