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Essex County officials testify during a mandate relief hearing at the Conference Center at Lake Placid on Friday. Photo: Chris Morris, courtesy Adirondack Daily Enterprise
Essex County officials testify during a mandate relief hearing at the Conference Center at Lake Placid on Friday. Photo: Chris Morris, courtesy Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Local officials press Lt. Gov. for mandate relief

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Gov. Cuomo's Mandate Relief Council continued its statewide tour Friday with a three-hour hearing on at Lake Placid's new conference center.

The council consists of state lawmakers and members of Cuomo's administration. The group listened to concerns about unfunded mandates presented by officials from across the North Country; the system "is broken," they told the council.

Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy moderated Friday's hearing. He said the forums have been educational, and he hopes mandate relief can be accomplished as quickly as possible.

Chris Morris has our story.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

Duffy says enacting Cuomo’s Tier VI pension plan would be a big first step toward easing costs for local governments. The plan would have public employees contribute more to health and retirement costs, among other steps.

“There are those who are certainly against some of these changes, primarily Tier VI,” Duffy said. “And for the labor leaders who are against that, they’re trying to preserve their legacy, but the jobs they are trying to maintain aren’t going to be there in five or 10 or 15 years because governments can’t afford to keep them.”

Several of the speakers who testified said they supported Tier VI.

Saranac Lake village Mayor Clyde Rabideau says the cost of pensions for local governments have become crippling.

Rabideau says opponents of Tier VI claim the state’s pension system isn’t broken.

“The system is really broken,” he said. “It’s gone up, for local municipalities, six times. That’s a lot of money. In the last 10 years, the cost to local governments has gone up that much. We need help; the system is broken.”

Rabideau says there are other myths being spread about Tier VI. “We’ve heard the other myth, the other red herring, that the benefits are meager,” he said. “That’s not the case. You stack up the benefit plans in New York state with any other state in the nation, we’re at the top, if not way over the top.

“And they also say, ‘This system is not going to be reliable.’ Yet one would only have to reflect over the last few decades to SUNY (State University of New York) and CUNY (City University of New York) that have the same defined contribution plan proposed by Governor Cuomo, and it’s worked out extremely well.”

While Rabideau pointed to concrete reforms like Tier VI, other speakers were a little less optimistic about the state’s mandate relief efforts.

North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi told the council he understands their mission is to collect proposals on how to address unfunded mandates.

But he says local government officials are more likely to complain because of years of inaction in Albany. “From what I see of Albany, the status quo does not like to rock the boat,” Politi said. “Well, the boat is sinking.”

Politi says programs like Medicaid are driving costs through the roof for counties. “Medicaid costs are out of control,” Politi said. “It is the most onerous aspect of any county’s tax rate. I question the state’s ability to oversee such a program, and I wonder if more outside help is needed in this area.”

Speakers did address specific issues like prevailing wages, staffing levels at county jails and probation costs.

Bill Farber is chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors. He says the state needs to be as aggressive as possible in addressing those smaller, more specific regulations and mandates.

But that can’t come at the expense of taking care of the real cost drivers, Farber says. “You can do all this over here, and it would be progress and it’s important to do it, but it won’t get us where we need to be in terms of really controlling and eventually bringing down high property taxes and other taxes and putting New York on the sustainable plane that the governor is trying to lead it into,” he said.

After the hearing, Duffy said he’s heard many of the same issues and frustrations around the state. “Even those who disagree with some things conceptually, don’t disagree that we have a major problem in the state,” he said. “I’m a former mayor; I’ve lived this. Some of the testimony today hit the nail on the head.”

The Mandate Relief Council will hold another hearing in the North Country this week before heading to the Southern Tier and Western New York to wrap things up.

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