PLATTSBURGH — Municipal pension costs, affirmative action, gun control and cuts to programs for the developmentally disabled highlighted the Legislative Forum breakfast on Friday morning.
“I believe with every fiber of my body that we absolutely have an obligation to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves,” Assemblywoman Janet Duprey (R-Peru) told the crowd gathered at the Holiday Inn.
Duprey was lamenting a proposal to cut funding for some developmentally disabled assistance programs by 6 percent, which would mean a loss of about $1.5 million for North Country nonprofits that serve that population.
It was one of the many issues discussed during the two-hour forum that the North Country Chamber of Commerce hosts annually.
The event gave Duprey and the North Country’s other state representatives — Sen. Betty Little and Assemblyman Dan Stec — a chance to sound off on issues central to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed budget.
The governor’s proposed “pension smoothing” raised some eyebrows as the legislative trio weighed in on the plan to give municipalities an opportunity to fix State Retirement Fund payments for 25 years at lower rates than they are paying now but higher than what is expected in the future.
Municipalities have been hit hard in recent years by large contributions to the pension fund, which is dependent on stock-market performance.
The smoothing plan would allow municipalities that decide to opt in to realize immediate savings and give them stable figures to plan on for the long term.
But some fear the plan might cost more in the long term if the market underperforms.
“I think it is a good deal, and hopefully people will look at it that way,” Little (R-Queensbury) said.
Duprey said the plan could certainly help municipalities budget better.
“They can stabilize and structure their rates, and it will stay that way for the duration, so they can budget accordingly,” she said.
Stec (R-Glens Falls) said he likes the concept but wants to know more before he totally supports it.
“What happens to those who don’t opt in? Do they get the same benefits if it goes up or the same loss if it doesn’t?” asked Stec, a former town supervisor.
“There are still lots of questions, and we need to lay out all the details so they (municipalities) can know exactly what to expect.”
Duprey, a strong supporter of programs that serve the developmentally disabled, said the proposed 6 percent cut would be devastating.
“That’s a cut of more than $1 million for this area, and I am absolutely against that,” she said.
“These agencies are getting absolutely hammered, and people are going to feel that.”
John Donoghue, president of the Plattsburgh-Saranac Lake Building and Construction Trades Council, said affirmative-action standards that call for at least 20 percent of the value of a state contract to go to minority- or women-owned businesses are hamstringing North Country contractors.
The standards also allow for the 20 percent figure to be reached by hiring enough minority workers, but Donoghue said that also can be difficult in the North Country.
He said the state should modify its requirements based on the ethnic makeup of the population of each county.
“I might have to go somewhere else and bring in someone (minority) to fill the requirement while I have someone local who can do the job but can’t work because of this,” Donoghue said.
Little, who is on a task force to look into the affirmative-action requirements, agreed with Donoghue.
“This is not New York City,” she said. “Reaching 20 percent is just not possible in our area.”
On Friday afternoon, she attended a forum in Lake Placid designed to help more businesses be certified as women- and minority-owned enterprises.
Little said there is not enough opposition in the Senate to repeal the recently passed gun-control law, but she hopes some changes will be made.
The controversial law was approved by the State Legislature on Jan. 15 after being pressed by the governor. It mandates a seven-round magazine limit, includes stricter definitions of assault weapons and requires owners of semiautomatic guns to register them, among numerous other points.
Recent polls show that only 30 percent of respondents oppose the new law.
“I think the best chance for change to this will be in the courts,” Little said.
CVPH Medical Center President Stephens Mundy said one of his concerns with the new gun law is the mental-health alert. That requires mental-health professionals to report to local health officials when there is reason to believe patients are likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to themselves or others.
If the patients have a gun, their permits will be suspended and their firearms taken away.
With so many law-enforcement personnel and hunters living in the North Country, Mundy fears that many will not seek mental-health treatment for fear of losing their guns.
Ultimately, many of them could wind up coming to the emergency room, he said, and suicide rates could increase.
“I think we could see a crisis in this,” Mundy said.
Little agreed, saying there is liability in the new law for those who do not report mental-health issues.
“The big concern is what is going to come next,” she said.
“We would all like to prevent these tragedies (school shootings), but I am not sure we can. I don’t know that this (gun law) is the answer.”
Email Joe LoTemplio: firstname.lastname@example.org