By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Gov. Andrew Cuomo hopes the state's new budget will send the following message to local governments across New York: Find ways to cut costs by sharing services and consolidating or face financial and, perhaps, political consequences.
During a conference call Wednesday with editorial board members from newspapers across the state, Cuomo lauded the fourth on-time spending plan in the last four years as being not only fiscally responsible but helpful in tackling one of New York's biggest problems: high property taxes financing multiple layers of local government.
The budget, adopted by the state legislature on Monday, advances Cuomo's property tax relief plan, a component that the governor described as "transformative" in that it is estimated to result in $1.5 billion in relief for New York's tax-weary property owners.
Under year one of the plan, homeowners will qualify for a 2-percent rebate on their annual tax increase provided their local governments operate under the state's two-percent property tax cap. By year two, Cuomo said the plan will require officials from local governments to develop their own three-year shared services plans, which must result in tax levy reductions of at least 1 percent. If not, constituents living in those communities will not be eligible to receive the annual tax break, which state officials have said would come in the form of checks delivered to property owners.
As he has in the past, Cuomo described property taxes as the state's most pressing problem, noting that back in 1932 then Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt decried the number of local governments and property tax burden in New York.
Cuomo said he's hopeful the previously enacted 2-percent cap and elements of the new tax relief proposal will provide incentive to local officials to do more joint purchasing of vehicles and other equipment and services as well as consolidate what he described as local, and often costly, "silos" of government. He said the plan was intentionally developed to provide "political pressure on the local governments."
"If you don't do something different, we are going to have a real problem," Cuomo said.
While not a "perfect" document, Cuomo argued that the latest spending plan does exercise "fiscal discipline" and includes a needed cut in the corporate tax rate while raising New York's estate tax to the federal level. He said he's confident the groundwork has been laid for New York to become more financially sound in the years ahead.
"When you exercise that fiscal discipline, good things happen," he said. "Cuomo said. "To me, it's eat right and exercise. If you're eating right and you exercise, good things happen."
While critics may disagree, Cuomo defended the budget's approach to education spending, noting that it offers a 5-percent increase in funding for schools, an amount the governor described as "remarkably generous given these economic circumstances."
He also disagreed with those who have complained that more funding will improve the quality of education, noting that New York has spent more per student in the last 20 years than any other state, but does not find itself at the top of any lists in terms of student achievement.
"I don't believe it's the money," Cuomo said. "I believe it's the system. I believe it's performance."
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the new state budget.
On Wednesday, the Albany think tank, the Empire Center for New York State Policy, provided a web link to its so-called "Spend-O-Meter." The center determined, based on state Senate estimates of $137.9 billion in all funds spending under the enacted budget for 2014-15, that the in the coming fiscal year the state will spend $4,373 per second, $262,367 per minute, $15,7 million per hour, $377.8 million per day, $2,65 billion per week and $11.49 billion per month.
"New York state government will spend $16.7 million more per day under the newly enacted budget than it did just five years ago," said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center. "Our Spend-O-Meter is just one way to put the massive New York state budget in perspective."
To view the Spend-O-Meter visit www.empirecenter.org/spendometer.cfm.Contact City Editor Mark Scheer at 282-2311, ext. 2250.