Yes, share services, but state must own up

In Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address last week, one thing he banged the drum about was reducing New York’s high local property taxes. That’s good.

Local governments must continue to do more, he said, so he wants to extend his County-wide Shared Services Initiative. Last year after its launch, 34 of New York’s 57 counties outside New York City submitted plans on how to save taxpayers money by sharing services between local government bodies. Essex County was not among those 34, sadly. Franklin County was, but its plan was modest: efficiencies intended to save the average taxpayer 1.9 percent the first year and 1 percent each year afterward.

There is much more local government could do to lower its costs for taxpayers while maintaining sufficient services. We should be talking about merging small school districts, or sharing school administrators and other staff and resources. How about a district court system? Essex and Franklin counties, which together have 90,000 residents, currently have 37 town courts plus one village court (Lake Placid). Could we have one county police force instead of several village or town departments, plus a county sheriff office? Maybe that wouldn’t work, but can we at least talk about it?

Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the government we have keeps rising.

“Property taxes are now toxic to our economy and our stability,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “And that is going to be at the top of our agenda for this year.”

But as the governor points fingers, he needs to own up to the fact that there’s only so much counties, towns and the like can do. The biggest drivers of property taxes are costs he and the state legislature pass down to local government.

“Last year, nine state mandates consumed 99 percent of the property taxes levied by counties across the state, outside of New York City,” the New York Association of Counties wrote on its website in 2017. “This year’s state budget raised district attorney salaries that must be paid by counties with no state reimbursement. Additionally, new state-imposed indigent legal defense requirements will significantly impact eligibility for those in need of criminal defense counsel. Again, the state is mandating local action without providing resources to offset costs.”

Cuomo even vetoed a bill the legislature passed in which the state would have picked up the cost of criminal public defenders.

Medicaid is a particular budget buster. New York may be the only state that makes counties help pay for their poor residents’ health insurance. That alone is a $2.3 billion burden over which counties have no control; in 2016 it made up 46 percent of all county property taxes statewide, according to NYSAC. To make things more unfair, the poorest counties have both the highest proportion of Medicaid recipients and the least tax revenue with which to cover them.

Last year when two Republican congressmen from New York tried to make New York pick up Medicaid costs from counties in 2017, Cuomo freaked out and threatened to make counties pay for it anyway, through a new county tax he vindictively said he’d name after those congressmen. While federal action may not be appropriate, it was a sad display by our governor, and it was dissapointing to hear him last week say it’s local government’s job to reduce property taxes.

It has to be a group effort. State and local government bodies have made some strides — enacting the property tax cap and eliminating numerous village courts come to mind — but there is more to be done.

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