The Remarks of Senator Andrea-Stewart-Cousins New York State Association of Counties Annual Legislative Conference The Desmond Hotel, Albany, New York Tuesday, February 9, 2010

 
Miscellaneous Transcript

Thank you Bill (Ryan) for that kind introduction – I had the privilege of serving with Bill for almost a decade on the Westchester County Legislature…which is also the reason that there are so many other familiar faces here today -- thank you all for your warm reception. 

President Thomas Santulli, (Chemung County Executive), Mike Breslin (Albany’s own County Executive), my friend Steve Acquario, (Executive Director of NYSAC), the NYSAC Board of Directors and all of the leaders of our counties -- the important members of this distinguished and accomplished organization, thank you so much for this opportunity to be here with you today.   

On behalf of Majority Conference Leader John Sampson and all of my Senate colleagues, I bring greetings for a very successful and productive conference.   

The ten years I served in the Westchester County Legislature, including serving as Vice Chair for one year and Chairperson of Legislation for six of those years, were my chance to know and understand the challenges all of you experience every day. The benefit I derived from that experience has served me well as Chairwoman of the Senate Standing Committee on Local Government, and with that understanding, I would like to address some of the priorities my colleagues and I have for local governments during the current legislative session.

I know well how you have come together to prepare a legislative package that you believe will address the concerns and needs of your constituents. And, importantly, I know that many of you may feel that preparing such a legislative package may fall on deaf ears, here in Albany.

It is easy to be cynical and it is easy to expect that state government, especially in this era, may hear what you have to say, but may not actually be listening or may not have the capacity to be creative or terribly responsive in addressing concerns.

You are, very often, the link between citizen participation and every level of policymaking.   You hear directly, every day, what concerns your constituents, so it’s imperative that we do listen to you, that together we engage in a meaningful dialogue and begin the collaborative process that will help all of us create substantive and sustainable policies for our constituents.

Overview

Local governments are confronting major challenges. From Suffolk County to Erie County, from Clinton County to Broome County – there is NO political subdivision that is immune from decreasing local tax revenues, increasing pension and health insurance costs and high unemployment.

We are all here during a time of tremendous transformation in our state and, in fact, in our nation.

We are now required to make change – our time calls for it and our citizens demand it.

As an organization, NYSAC has made it quite clear that you need and want change for your local governments and the people we collectively represent.

As such, because of what most analysts agree will be a period of painful change and transition, it is essential that my colleagues and I – all the members of the State Legislature – must do more listening than ever to organizations like NYSAC to properly implement the changes you need to satisfy those demands.

NYSAC and other similar statewide organizations have an increased and prominent role in advocating for the policies and initiatives that will make our state stronger. It is imperative that we change.

You know it, I know it and my colleagues know it.  One of the primary reasons that I am here today is because our constituents know it as well.

So, at the most fundamental level, we must acknowledge and understand what the key issues are and why they matter. To that end, here are some of the policies that I have made priorities for the legislative session:

  • I’ve recently introduced Senate Bill 6648, which will permanently authorize counties to impose sales and compensating use taxes at rates up to 4% and to extend for two years, in the usual manner, the authority of the five counties that have had authority to impose sales and use taxes at rates in excess of 4%. When this bill passes, counties will no longer have to wait for State enabling legislation. 
  • We are working to provide greater flexibility in the way local governments operate and provide services within their communities.

Just yesterday the Senate approved a bill which I sponsored allowing not-for-profits providing services to a county to purchase goods and services through the county.  This will reduce the cost of providing services to taxpayers. 

Other important initiatives include expanding broadband and improving access to healthcare in rural regions of the state.

And, in our rural areas, we are working to expand the availability of NYS products and expand programs aimed at showcasing the bounty of NY’s agricultural harvest. 

Recently the Senate approved measures to assist local governments to become more efficient, and ultimately save taxpayers money.

I introduced and passed the New York Government Reorganization and Citizens Empowerment Act in the Senate, which becomes effective March 21st.  This law will make it easier for governing bodies and citizens to initiate dissolution and consolidation procedures for towns, villages  and special districts. Under the new law, counties must protect local services when consolidating or transferring functions from one local government to another.  Much credit goes to Attorney General Cuomo for his leadership on this landmark legislation. 

In addition, Tier V Pension Reform was signed into law by Governor Paterson, bringing the most significant pension reform in 25 years.  Tier V is estimated to provide more than $35 billion in savings for State and local governments over the next thirty years and long-term property tax relief to taxpayers.

Exec. Budget/ Mandate Reform

I continue to work toward eliminating unfunded mandates -- for local governments and for school districts. 

Last session I was the Chief Sponsor of the Mandate Relief Bill –

This legislation, [signed into law on November 12, 2009] will reduce the costs to local government through state mandate-relief and increased flexibility for local governments to empower them to find operational efficiencies.

Specifically, this bill:

  •   Reduces the minimum number of municipal corporations needed to establish a health insurance cooperative from five to three;
  •   Facilitates highway shared services agreements among municipalities, and between municipalities and state agencies;
  •   Allows one public health director to serve more than one county;
  •   Increases the local competitive bidding threshold for all contracts for public work involving an expenditure of more than $20,000 to $35,000;
  •   Authorizes the Municipal Bond Bank Agency to purchase municipal bonds for public improvements under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and allow them to issue pooled municipal bonds to achieve lower interest rates;
  •   Treats municipal employees the same as private sector employees by prohibiting them from seeking recovery against a public employer for damages otherwise covered by insurance; and  protect parties to the settlement of tort claims from certain unwarranted liens, reimbursements and subrogation claims.

We are working to provide substantial relief for the most costly programs by:

  • Capping the cost of the Preschool Special Education program to 2% of the annual growth with school districts assuming all responsibility for any spending over this level
  • Requiring insurance companies to pay for Early Intervention services covered under the terms of their policies, instituting a parental fee on services that would vary based on income and revisiting rates for home and facility based care to encourage the use of less costly facility-based care 
  • The Senate is committed to continuing the State’s commitment to capping the local cost of the Medicaid program and implement new demonstration programs that give counties who choose to close their nursing homes, the option to redirect these savings to enhance community-based long term care services and enable the placement of those deemed hard to place, into private nursing homes
  • The Senate is committed to continue working with counties and the State Commission of Correction by instituting several statutory changes aimed at reducing the mandated cost burdens associated with running local jails, such as expanding the use of video-conferencing for certain court appearances and inmate services as well as providing additional flexibility in housing inmates (The Commission had historically imposed a number of regulations limiting the local flexibility in regards to jail management, in recent years, the new chairman has been working with counties to ease some of these regulations).     

To encourage shared services and realize significant savings - county governments have been awarded Local Government Efficiency grants – last year grants were awarded:

  • To the City of Albany and Rensselaer County for employee prescription drug purchases through a Municipal Cooperation Agreement to jointly purchase pharmacy benefit management services through a single provider, annual cost savings is estimated to be $1,133,245
  • To Broome County to assess the feasibility of consolidating municipal police forces,
  • To Erie County to study the potential merger of sanitary sewer services between the County and two towns and a village;
  • To Orange, Ulster and Sullivan Counties to study the potential of a collaborative approach to jails in the Hudson Valley;
  • To Jefferson County for a proposed EMS project and to Washington County to design snowplow routes throughout the county to reduce costs and improve quality of services

If you haven’t taken advantage of the Local Government Efficiency Grant program, I would encourage you to do so.

Moving Forward

The State has been facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  The State budget deficit is now $8.2 billion, up from $7.4 billion when the Governor released his budget. This shortfall is driven primarily by the continued impact of the current state recession, as well as changes in the timing and structure of financial services sector compensation, which have resulted in lower than expected personal income tax revenues. In addition, the downturn has also caused higher than expected demand for Medicaid services, which will increase legally required State entitlement spending commitments.

After many years of unsound budget practices, it’s time to get the State budget under control.  For over 75 years the State has engaged in budget practices that spent, taxed, and borrowed this State into almost financial ruin.

The general goals for the State Fiscal Year 2010-11 State Budget are three fold:

1.  Keep bottom line aggregate spending to levels close to the Executive's level or even lower (increase of 0.6% for the General Fund and 0.7% increase for the All Funds)

2.  Provide property tax relief

3.  Keep tax and fee increases to an absolute minimum. 

The Conference Leader is already clearly on record ruling out the Senate proposing new taxes and fees.

Sales and property-tax collections (the primary sources of income for counties) have declined over the last couple of years while demands for services have increased, leaving counties with few options and even less discretionary spending.  The NYS Senate Majority will continue to work with counties to restructure the way government operates in NYS and how services are provided. 

In closing, I just want to emphasize that this economic crisis presents an enormous opportunity for government at all levels to restore our constituent’s faith and trust in all of us by transforming its transparency, efficiency, and effectiveness. I believe in “smart government.”  When I say “smart government, I mean government that is at an appropriate size using “best practices” for the tasks it should perform. Government ought to serve the needs of its citizens by enacting the progressive and creative policies that improve and strengthen their quality of life.  

I believe we should use performance-based budgeting.  This method of budgeting measures performance based on outcomes rather than inputs.  Government should not be simply evaluated based on how many services we provide, but how well we provide those services and what the actual impact is on our citizens. 

Thank you.