JOE LoTEMPLIO and KIM SMITH DEDAM
PLATTSBURGH — The idea of controlling spending in the state budget is welcome news for local officials, but they are hoping for more than that.
“It would have been nice to see some more mandate relief, but I’m not surprised,” Clinton County Legislature Chairman Jimmy Langley (R-Area 7, Peru) said.
This week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his 2013-14 budget plan, which calls for a spending increase of 2 percent, the same as the local property-tax cap that was imposed two years ago.
The $135 billion plan eliminates a budget shortfall of about $1.35 billion.
The governor has done many good things for the state since he took office in 2011, Langley said, but local governments are still struggling.
“What helps them (the state) usually winds up hurting us, and it’s the same people that wind up paying for everything.”
State Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury) said the number of reports to be filed with the state will be reduced for many agencies, which should bring some relief.
She also said waivers for some special-education programs that the state required beyond federal statutes will also help, as should improvements in the workers-compensation and unemployment-insurance programs.
“I think there are some things in this plan that will bring some relief and help local governments and employers,” Little said.
NO NEW TAXES
Plattsburgh/North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas said he liked the idea that, for the third year in a row, the budget does not include tax or fee hikes.
“We welcome this historic and sustained shift from the past and also welcome commitments to workers-comp and unemployment-insurance reforms,” Douglas told the Press-Republican.
“And we also see several new economic-development tools that we can make work for the North Country, along with significant additional resources for the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) and other transit systems in the state, a positive opportunity for Bombardier, Nova Bus and our transportation-equipment companies.”
But Franklin County Legislator and Tupper Lake Mayor Paul Maroun reads Cuomo’s pledge for “no new taxes” as a death knell for the proposals in motion throughout the North Country.
“The governor said ‘no new taxes,’ which means the bed tax in Franklin County is out. Sales-tax increase in Essex County is out. St. Lawrence County’s planned sales-tax increase is also out.”
The governor proposed increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 per hour.
Sen. Little said that while most small-business owners she has talked with are not in favor of raising the minimum wage, she hopes the workers-comp improvements will balance the scales.
“It could be a wash for businesses if they have to pay less for workers comp,” she said.
Liquor and Wine Warehouse Owner Steve Carpenter said while he starts his employees above minimum wage, it’s even more important that he offers them a steady number of hours each week, rather than fluctuating their amount of hours worked.
It can be hard for employees to develop a budget if they don’t know how much they will make in that pay period, he said.
It’s also why he tries to not lay people off.
“People need to have a steady income,” he said.
Carpenter said an increase in the minimum wage means more money goes to the state in payroll taxes. He proposes, instead, offering every employee a tax break on their first hour of work each week, which would benefit them during the course of a year.
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru) said she was happy the budget included no prison closures for the North Country.
“We didn’t expect any, but it is always a sigh of relief when you finally hear it.”
Duprey applauds the recommendation that counties would not have to have their sales-tax plans approved by the state every two years unless they are raising the amount.
“It’s just less bureaucracy,” she said.
Duprey also said that while there is some mandate relief in the budget, she would like to see more.
“It’s the beginning, but it’s better than the nothing that we’ve had,” she said.
“But overall it looks like a good package.”
Little said she believes the budget will be approved by the April 1 deadline, as it has the past two years.
“We’ve proven we can do it, so I don’t see why we can’t do it again,” she said.
Newly elected Assemblyman Dan Stec said his impression of Cuomo’s budget was also favorable.
“He’s under 2 percent with his tax increase. That’s a good sign. The devil is in the details, though. Overall, I wish I had seen more specifics on mandate relief.”
Stec said he is watching two budget items that can have a big impact on local municipalities: pension contributions and Cuomo’s proposal to flatten local contribution rates against future Tier 6 savings.
“The governor is saying that we can shift (pension contribution costs) from local municipalities so that it’s flatter, so local governments get immediate benefit. I like even better that he’s proposing making (payment structure) optional for municipalities. They can either pay as they have been or lock into the flatter rate.”
Both Stec and Maroun championed Cuomo’s burgeoning plan to cap binding-arbitration increases to 2 percent.
The provision would curtail police and fire personnel pay increases that have gone to arbitration for decision — a process that often results in costs beyond what taxpayers and local budgets can sustain.
“Binding-arbitration legislation is huge,” Maroun said. “I was happy to see his budget proposal that, whenever there is binding arbitration, the pay raises shouldn’t exceed 2 percent. An arbiter has the force of law when police and fire contracts go to arbitration — it’s not a mediation. It’s entirely out of the local government’s hands. But the problem for local governments is, how do you match that against the 2-percent tax cap?”
But local legislators are also watching closely where state cuts end up in this budget.
“The state’s funding support is down to 28 percent for community colleges, where it once was 33 percent,” Maroun said. “We can’t continue to make up the difference locally. My stance in the county and the village is going to be: Whenever the state reduces their share to a program, we are not, as local governments, going to pick up the difference.
“You can’t hold town, school or county budgets to the 2 percent (tax-cap) level and then make them look bad by seeking approval to go over that cap because you cut the money to local government.”
In Essex County, Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava, who is also chairman of the County Finance Committee, shared that concern.
“We’re under a 2-percent tax cap limit now. And that is more difficult to achieve if the state is cutting funding for, for instance, our mandated programs, especially in human-services agencies.
“In Moriah, we’ve been able to maintain the tax cap, as have most towns. But in the county, most of our services are mandated by the state,” Scozzafava said Wednesday.
Maroun expressed some concern with Cuomo’s proposal to bring the Environmental Protection Fund up to $153 million, an increase of $19 million, most of which is coming from unclaimed bottle-deposit receipts.
“I was a little surprised he is kicking up the EPF fund. I think the Finch Pruyn land purchase is part of it. But if it’s adding monies so he can announce the state is buying Follensby (in Tupper Lake), then I’m concerned.
“We can’t keep buying state land,” Maroun said. “We can’t take care of the state lands and forests we’ve got.”
The state’s largest environmental lobbyist, the Adirondack Council, was glad to see the $19 million addition to the Environmental Protection Fund, especially after Cuomo vetoed a plan from legislators to add $10 million to the fund last session.
Council spokesman John Sheehan said the governor indicated then he would make the adjustment in the 2013 executive budget.
“We are pleased to see that he not only lived up to his word, but increased the total amount going to the EPF beyond what the vetoed bill would have provided,” Sheehan said in a statement.
— Staff Writer Dan Heath contributed to this report.