ALBANY — Oswego County representatives are rebelling against the constant burden of state-imposed unfunded mandates.
Long a target of scorn of local elected officials, unfunded mandates are requirements handed down from Albany to implement a program or service, meet an environmental standard, construct or upgrade a facility or provide a tax break or exemption with no fiscal backing.
For county governments like Oswego, which function in an implementation and administrative capacity on behalf of state departments, shouldering the financial load for state programs presents a serious challenge.
Oswego County’s 2019 $209.5 million budget includes a $48.4 million local property tax levy. The total cost of unfunded mandates to the county is $49.3 million.
“Unfunded mandates are the primary cause of county property taxes,” said Oswego County Administrator Phil Church. “In Oswego County, every dollar of property tax pays for State and Federal programs forced on us by the state. Property taxes pay for no local services. So in reality, county property taxes are really New York state property taxes.”
There are more than 40 state-designed and controlled programs that fall on counties to execute, including Medicaid, public assistance, indigent criminal defense legal services, child welfare and preschool special education, among many others.
Oswego County, for example, has budgeted $23.4 million in Medicaid costs for 2019, according to Church.
“Oswego County taxpayers send nearly a half million dollars to Albany to pay for Medicaid... every week!” Church said. “The leaders of every other state in the US have figured out how to pay for health insurance for the poor and disabled without shoving the cost onto local property owners, so why can’t New York’s leaders?”
Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, said local governments are “being crushed by mandates” and “taxes are through the roof.”
“Gov. Cuomo is brazenly proposing to cut critical funding to municipalities already under severe stress,” said Barclay. “There is something very wrong with this picture. New Yorkers can only take so much abuse at the hands of spend-happy lawmakers.”
Strict adherence to directives and compliance that come with unfunded mandates — which, per their name, carry no financial assistance — along with counties being unable to control the costs, cause a major headache for local leaders trying to square their revenues and expenditures.
“Our local governments work extremely hard to make ends meet — which is increasingly difficult when Albany continues to burden them with unfunded mandates,” said state Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.
The origin of state mandates stretches all the way back to 1892 with the County Consolidated Law, which required the Empire State’s 62 counties to appoint local officers, some of which remain today: Treasurer, Clerk, Sheriff, District Attorney and a host of other administrators and officials to facilitate day-to-day operations.
Some mandates are so ingrained they’re largely taken for granted or seem like relics of a bygone era: the first state labor regulations, including hours of work and workers compensation, came after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that left 146 dead in New York City.
In 1929, New York’s government adopted laws endorsing the state government’s responsibility for relief for “state poor,” according to New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC), leading to many of the social welfare and relief programs still in place.
Between the fiscal years of 2008 to 2012, New York reduced reimbursements to counties by nearly $400 million annually as the Great Recession broke on the global economy. State aid for local social services were eliminated and programs like early intervention and community college full-time-equivalent aid were slashed, according to NYSAC.
“State mandates on local government have inhibited local ingenuity and innovation, and the continued underinvestment into local needs will have long term consequences,” said NYSAC Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario.
While there is general consensus that some unfunded mandates are a net positive for communities — public schools were recently required to undertake lead testing and removal in drinking water sources, for example — the idea that decision made in Albany must be good for individual communities is flawed, Oswego County officials say.
Major changes to New York elections, including early voting and a shift of the political calendar, are yet another instance of the state Legislature writing checks to balance against the county.
“I voted against these measures,” Barclay said, regarding the early voting proposal. “We place enough unfunded mandates on our localities. Election Day is always the first Tuesday in November. Stretching this day into weeks and offering same-day registration would not only cost more money but it would make the systems that are already in place vulnerable to voter fraud.”
The Sisyphean task of trying to roll back the state’s mandate madness is not hopeless, elected officials say, and Ritchie has introduced a number of bills pushing for mandate relief on Medicaid, DMV transactions and parole, which often leads to prison crowding.
“In recent years I have worked to provide relief to local municipalities and their residents by advocating to put an end to unfunded mandates. It’s a goal I am continuing to work toward in my new role as ranking member of the Senate’s Local Government Committee,” Ritchie said.
Last week, Barclay and members of the Assembly minority conference called on the governor and legislators to “consider (our) recommendations to ease the burden faced by many families in New York.
“Our conference is committed to protecting small businesses, middle-class taxpayers and homeowners, and I’m confident our proposals would help taxpayers throughout the state,” Barclay said. “I’m pleased with the work done by Leader Kolb and the rest of our conference, and I’m hopeful the governor will implement these critical budget proposals.”
The New York state budget is due April 1.