Counties have it tough as they plan their budgets for 2012. Unfunded mandates loom large: The federal and state governments require counties to meet certain standards for things like employee pensions and health insurance, Medicaid, social services, jails and courts, but the county has to pay for much of it. They get partially reimbursed for some things, but that means if they cut funding in a particular area, their reimbursement goes down proportionally. And many things they aren't allowed to cut.
Plus, now the state has limited counties' ability to raise revenue to pay for these constantly increasing costs. It has enacted a 2 percent cap on property tax hikes, and the governor refuses to sign any bill for a county to hike its sales tax rate.
This is not fair. Of course, as our mothers used to tell us, life isn't fair. There's the dilemma.
We support the 2 percent property tax hike but think the governor should relent on the side of sales taxes, letting counties raise their rates up to a maximum - perhaps equal to the state's highest current sales tax rate. Sales taxes are inherently more fair than property taxes, and the money has to come from somewhere.
On the other hand, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is following the method he seems to like best to shrink New York's vast network of local governments: Starve 'em out. The unspoken message is, "We won't let you raise taxes and we're raising your costs, so something's going to have to give. You folks will have to give up something local that you don't want to lose."
That's harsh, but could it make us more fruitful in the long run? Maybe - like pruning an apple tree. Counties might do well to rid themselves of some marginally useful programs; for example, how much do industrial development agencies really give us that our numerous other economic development agencies don't?
But also keep in mind that property tax pain doesn't come just from one's county; it's the cumulative effect of county, town, school and sometimes village.
So here's an idea: What if the Franklin and Essex County highway departments absorbed all their towns' highway departments? Most of those workers, trucks and garages would still be needed to plow and maintain the roads to the level we're used to, but not as many as we have now. County taxes might go up a bit, but everyone's town taxes would drop by a larger amount, reducing people's overall property tax burden. And highway service might be improved as well, since, by crossing town lines, the crews could work more efficiently.
Highway superintendents will probably hate this idea, and they're elected, so that complicates things. But these are the kinds of changes it seems the governor is pushing us toward. As attorney general, he regularly complained that New York has too many local governments and that many of them should be merged. That's correct.
We can do it now, mostly on our terms, or perhaps under further duress in the future.
P.S.: Franklin County legislators should stop holding budget meetings behind closed doors in executive sessions - although they're starting to do better than last year. Not only is this practice possibly illegal, according to the state Open Meetings Law; it's blatantly undemocratic. These people were elected to represent the public, and the public expects them to do so in public.