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Counties "govern by triage," seek mandate relief

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The North Country is seeing some tough times in county government, with Essex County facing a $13 million shortfall, and St. Lawrence County projecting a 20 percent property tax increase.

New York State Association of Counties Executive Director Stephen Acquario says counties are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, counties have to pay for dozens of mandated services, from Medicaid to child welfare, which cost more every year. On the other hand, they now have to keep tax increases within a property tax cap.

Acquario told David Sommerstein the situation leaves counties essentially "governing by triage".

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I think the last thing the state needs to do is run around the state saying how great of a job they've done to cap property tax. That's not the answer.
Local government, in this particular instance, the county governments, have been forced to make some pretty, fairly drastic cutbacks in local services. What are they? Nursing homes, certainly in the North Country that’s happening, Washington County, Essex County and some others are looking at this certified home health agency.

So what’s causing the pressure right now, what the listeners are seeing unfold in front of them is a sign of the times. Largely flat revenue…meaning the sales tax that we use to operate the government, and the other piece of the revenue is property tax.

And the governor has told the people of New York the property taxes are too high, that we should cap them. The counties are struggling mightily to try to keep those taxes down, but are having a very hard time of this, because of the amount of money that has to go to Albany to pay for state expenditures delivered locally.

Some county lawmakers are saying we have to cut things like roads and bridges, and sheriff road patrols were suggested, help for the elderly, offices for the aging. A county legislator in St. Lawrence County, Fred Morrill, said 'yes these are essential things, but they’re not mandated.'

The vast majority of these mandates that the counties are tied up with, the largest of these being Medicaid, are unfunded mandates or underfunded mandates. So what does that mean? That means that the county government has to apply all of its sales tax. The county government has to apply all of its property tax, just about 80 percent of those types of revenues.

Maybe not all of them, but the vast majority of those two revenue sources go to pay for these nine state-mandated programs and services. And that's putting the pressure on the local services.

What do you think that the state, which also doesn’t have money to spend, should do to ameliorate the situation for the counties?

I think the last thing the state needs to do is run around the state saying how great of a job they’ve done to cap property tax. That’s not the answer. That’s a step in the right direction, our property taxes are too high. An individual is going to have a hard time paying an additional $165 a year in high property taxes. And I think that capping the revenue is hardly an answer.

To what extent are counties responsible for taking sort of political advantage of saying we only raise property taxes by so much in the better years, and not paying enough attention to sort of making sure they had enough of a fund balance in these lean years that we are in now?

I think that the counties, over time, have been reluctant to raise property taxes, because they’re high in the first instance, that our economy has been such that many people are out of work, that these legislators are citizens too.

They do not like to raise property taxes, for additional programs. They are being forced to raise property taxes to pay for programs that are mandated by the State, and less [for] local services. The situation at the local level has become unmanageable.

Steven Acquario directs the New York State Association of Counties. NYSAC has released a list of dozens of mandated services the State should pay more for.

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