Extra Primary Costs Taxpayers $300k

Southworth angered by “unfunded mandate”; cost to come out of general fund

BY MARCI REVETTE
news@theballstonjournal.com

Saratoga County residents voted in an unprecedented additional primary Tuesday night to decide the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in this fall’s election.

This year’s primary vote date was changed by federal District Court Judge Gary L. Sharpe from Sept. 11 to June 26 in order to allow sufficient time to send absentee ballots to military voters. The ruling found absentee voters, including military personnel serving overseas, would be unable to participate if the primary were held as originally scheduled.

This changed primary date will cost Saratoga County taxpayers an additional $300,000, according to Town of Ballston Supervisor Patti Southworth. “You have to pay for the election inspectors, facilities, printing, overtime for employees,” she said. “Also there will still be a primary on September 13. Every primary costs every county extra money.”

The Sept. 13 primary will decide candidates for state and local offices, according to the New York State Board of Elections.

The additional fiscal burden of the extra primary date has angered local officials. “That money now has to come out of our shrinking fund balance,” Southworth said. “Ultimately that’s less money that we’ll have for the upcoming year’s budget. We’re going to have making even more difficult choices.”

Southworth has been vocal in her opposition to unfunded mandates by both the state and federal government, which she believes place an undue burden on local government finances. “The reality is services are going to be cut to our seniors and other needy citizens,” she said. “Those in the most need are going to be the ones that are hurt. That’s unfortunate because those are the ones we’re supposed to be looking out for.”

The ruling in federal court was an unexpected development.

“The additional $300,000 is on top of budgeted amount for primaries,” Southworth said. “We did our budget in November and it was approved in December. At that point no one knew there would be extra primaries.

“We worked very hard to come up with a balanced budget,” Southworth concluded. “A lot of difficult decisions were being made. And now we’re being told the money has to come from our fund balance, which will ultimately affect the taxpayers.”

Wendy Long, a former law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, defeated U.S. Representative Bob Turner and Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos in the 20th Congressional District Republican U.S. Senate primary. She will be facing incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) in the fall.

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Mayday for Mandate Relief

Southworth: “Every dollar collected in property taxes goes straight to state for unfunded mandates”

BY MARCI REVETTE
news@theballstonjournal.com

Ballston Town Supervisor Patti Southworth opened the Thursday, June 14 town hall meeting on mandate relief by comparing the stress of financing unfunded New York State mandates to the international call of distress.

“This is a true mayday,” she said. “We’re on a path of destruction. We need action and we need it now.”

Southworth addressed a group of about 20 concerned citizens on the problems faced by the Town of Ballston in implementing the mandates. “A lot of people aren’t even aware of what a mandate is,” Southworth said. “This is our effort to educate the public.”

The hour-long meeting included a PowerPoint presentation outlining what unfunded mandates are and how they are affecting the citizens of Ballston.

Photo by Marci Revette

Unfunded mandates are federal or state regulations which require lower governments to implement a program, but provide no, or only partial, funding. Often that means the lower government must pay for the requirement by taxing its citizens.

In the Town of Ballston’s case, the report shows the town has to give $1.20 to the state for every dollar collected in property taxes.

In 2010, the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC) identified nine State mandates which consume 90 percent of the county property tax levy statewide. The mandates have been a direct cause of property tax increases over the past five decades.

The largest of the mandates is Medicaid, with the local share of Medicaid payments in New York now at 16 percent of total Medicaid spending.

Other unfunded mandates include public assistance, child welfare, preschool special education, indigent defense, probation, early intervention, youth detention and state pensions.

According to the report, New York State is still adding unfunded mandates. One is an unprecedented additional primary election this year, the result of the State’s failure to schedule a state primary election that meets the requirements of the federal primary election. The anticipated cost is around $300,000, to be funded by taxpayers.

Southworth went on to outline the reasons for mandate reform. Based on current trends, the projected growth in unfunded mandates, coupled with the 2 percent property tax cap, is not sustainable, according to Southworth. The trend also shows the likelihood of local community spending and services being choked off by the growth of unfunded mandates, she said.

Photo by Marci Revette

County governments have a limited amount of financial resources to provide mandated and non-mandated local services, Southworth said. And with the property tax cap in place and the costs of unfunded mandates increasing every year, counties are being forced to decrease funding for non-mandated local services. The services that could be most affected are road maintenance and repair, law enforcement, emergency services and senior citizen services, among others, she said.

Southworth concluded the presentation by outlining possible courses of action the county and the citizens can take to bring relief. The county will be implementing a “Truth in Taxation” program that Southworth hopes will be passed next week. She urged the audience members to contact the State Mandate Relief Council and state legislators to voice their concerns and to ask for mandate relief for their community and schools. Citizens can also visit www.enoughmandates.com and www.stopnymandates.com online to voice their concerns.

Some audience members were encouraged by the effort to educate the public on mandate relief. Brandon Myers was one of them. “I am really, really happy the county is doing what they are doing to get the word out,” he said.

OPINION: Unfunded State Mandates impact all

Patti Southworth, Ballston Town Supervisor, is hosting a town hall meeting on the subject of Mandate Relief on Thursday, June 14th at 7 p.m. at the Ballston Town Hall Building. She has worked with members of the Saratoga County Administrator’s office to develop an informative presentation about how unfunded state mandates are impacting all residents of our county. Paul Sausville, Malta Town supervisor, recently stated that the county’s property tax rate — which is among the state’s lowest at $2.23 per $1,000 of assessed value — “is essentially a state tax to cover mandates,” noting that the county generates about $50 million annually through property taxes but has a yearly mandate bill of $61.5 million and has to pay the balance from its sales tax receipts. The cost of unfunded state mandates is increasing each year and this situation is unsustainable. All residents are encouraged to attend this June 14th town hall meeting to learn more!

Lisa Donovan
Ballston

Walking Man

Tom Cavanagh treks from Canada to easternmost Long Island, raising awareness about unfunded government mandates.

 BY JENNIE GREY
jennie@theballstonjournal.com

How far would someone go to fight for a cause? If that someone was Tom Cavanagh, he would go 459 miles on foot–in 18 days. Cavanagh, 59,  is walking from Champlain to Montauk, covering most of New York State in his quest to stop unfunded government mandates.

The cook and emergency medical technician from East Berne has focused on being an athlete and a politically active citizen for the duration.

“I’ve been active in Essex County and Warren County politics,” he said. “Unfunded mandates are the biggest contributor to high taxes. Whether you are on the left or the right, these mandates affect everyone, especially seniors.”

An unfunded mandate is usually a federal law or program requiring a state or local government, or even private individuals or organizations, to perform certain actions or create or administer government programs. Yet no money is provided for fulfilling those requirements. When the federal government imposes a law or regulation without necessary funding, it becomes the responsibility of the state or local government to pay for the law’s implementation. And states can do the same to locals. In the end, the local taxpayers foot the bill.

Political activists opposed to these mandates believe laws imposed on lower governments by the federal government should require federal funding of those laws. They believe unfunded mandates place an unfair burden on lower levels of government, creating huge, unmanageable expenses for state and city governments.

Examples of such mandates include the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and No Child Left Behind. There’s also Medicaid.

Paying for these is hurting local citizens, Cavanagh said.

“My neighbors ask me, ‘What should we do—pay for our medication or stay in our house?’” he said. “These citizens are like critical patients–we need to stop the bleeding.”

The Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA) of 1995 was meant to control, if not eliminate, the imposition of the unfunded intergovernmental and private-sector federal mandates. The UMRA’s effectiveness has been in question by officials and citizens alike since its inception. Other action is clearly needed, according to Cavanagh.

“I’ve been involved with this issue for a year and a half,” he said. “It’s a continuous thing. In 27 states, unfunded mandates are restricted or illegal.” He showed off his T-shirt, which depicted New York State with a number 28 superimposed on it. “That’s our goal.”

Cavanagh praised New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Mandate Relief Council. The 11-member executive and legislative council is reviewing and advancing proposals to reduce the statutory and regulatory burden on local governments and school districts. Governor Cuomo signed the law creating the council as part of a mandate relief package intended to save local governments and school districts more than $125 million.

Wanting to be part of this call for reform, Cavanagh designed his walking tour. He planned the trip only through maps, making no test drive over the route. Friend Carl Gottstein is driving behind Cavanagh in the support vehicle.

“He gives me food and water and the phone, and tells me when to stop at night,” Cavanagh said.

The Walking Man is in great shape for this tour. He played competitive soccer for 20 years and now referees soccer, baseball, and basketball. He trained for a year before setting out from Champlain, losing 17 pounds in the process.

“I’m at 179 now,” he said. “That’s my high school weight.”

He walks approximately 30 miles a day and stops at night to sleep in hotels. At journey’s end, he plans to stride right off Long Island and into the ocean– on his 60th birthday.

County forum visits Ballston

BY GREG HITCHCOCK
gregh@theballstonjournal.com

Saratoga County Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas Wood III seeks community input on county's fiscal woes. Photo by Greg Hitchcock.

Saratoga County appears to be making good on its promise to make government more transparent as it held its first community forum meeting during a town board meeting in Ballston on Tuesday March 6.

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Thomas Wood III was on hand to answer questions from board members and residents present at the meeting. Vice-Chairman Alan Grattige was also present.

Wood said the county heard many concerns and opinions from the public regarding the county’s fiscal troubles at a public hearing on the 2012 budget held last year.

The county is running a tight budget this year and will likely do so again in 2013, mostly due to unfunded state mandates such as Medicaid, Wood said.

He said county executives are proactively working to solve these fiscal concerns. One action is to seek community input and suggestions.

“We are closely reviewing our expenditures and revenue sources,” Wood said.

One ongoing issue has been the county’s nursing home, Maplewood Manor. The facility has experienced a $10 million loss in revenue, Wood said.

“The magnitude of a loss like this is not sustainable,” he said.

A subcommittee has been formed to review Maplewood Manor and study whether selling or restructuring the nursing home would be the better solution.

Another source of contention has been the county landfill, which the county has so far had no use for over the past 12 years. The public works committee is reviewing options regarding the landfill.

Another step the county has taken is to institute a hiring freeze, recommending to departments to not request additional staff unless absolutely critical.

“We are doing more with less,” Wood said.

Saratoga County currently has 1,412 employees, which is a decrease of 44 employees from last year.

Beyond the reach of all cost-cutting measures, however, is the $61 million cost of funding state mandates.

Wood said it took all the county’s property taxes plus a dip into the county’s sales tax pool to pay for these mandates.

While the state is working to solve the unfunded mandates problem counties face, Wood said it is simply not enough.

“The state is promoting caps, not eliminating mandates,” Wood said, which is what local government really needs, he said.

Grattige said there are a lot of challenges counties like Saratoga have little control over.

Ballston Councilman Bill Goslin, a strong advocate of limited government spending, said any way to cut expenditures is important. He said mandate relief can be gotten around regardless of political pressures.

“A lot of people are hurting,” he said. “Anything we can do as a town, I support.”

Ballston resident Bruce Hogan agreed that public officials must find ways to reduce spending while reducing taxes on residents.

“We are pushing off the problem. We push back, but we need help,” Hogan said.

He said public officials and the community need to solve these problems by discovering their root cause.

Ballston Supervisor Patti Southworth said the root cause was the generosity of New Yorkers for social programs beyond the level which many of the taxpayers could possibly afford.

Southworth said taxpayers are very concerned about how the government is spending their money.

Making government transparent to the public is what they deserve, Southworth said.

“The issue is that it is the public’s money,” she said.

To make comments and suggestions on improving Saratoga County, the public is encouraged to visit Communicatingwiththechairman.com.

A tightened belt shouldn't be a noose

At the Dec. 1 Saratoga County Board of Supervisors budget hearing no one was very happy. Some were angry at the proposed funding cuts. Others were displeased at the property tax hike. Still others were fearful of the possible changes to their retirement benefits. And the supervisors themselves were nothing if not grim.

But on one point there was near-universal agreement, regardless of political persuasion: the root cause of our problem, or at least the limited options we have for dealing with it, is the unfunded mandate.

For those who may not follow this sort of thing, unfunded mandates are requirements laid on counties, municipalities, schools and other taxing districts by the state, without the state providing any money to carry them out. (There are federal unfunded mandates laid on the states, too, which gives you an idea where the problem actually starts.) There are also underfunded mandates, where the targeted entity must take some action or maintain some program with just part of the money coming from either the state or federal government.

That would be bad enough. But on top of the mandates come restrictions on how the counties (to keep it simple) can raise revenue to pay for them. There is a 2% cap on increases to the property tax. And an increase in the sales tax requires approval from the state legislature.

It takes no great leap of imagination to see how quickly this kind of arrangement can put a county in a fix. If spending can’t come down and revenues can’t go up you have your basic recipe for disaster. In Saratoga County the three most expensive mandates (Medicaid, required social services programs and pre-school special education) chew up more than all the federal and state funding provided combined. And there are six more big mandates on top of that, costing almost $25 million with no money at all forthcoming.

When faced with the inevitable budget shortfall the county Board of Supervisors looked first at hiking the sales tax from 7% to 8%. That would have brought in an estimated additional $11 million or so and would have gone a long way to closing the gap. But state Sens. Farley and McDonald signaled it wouldn’t be approved.

Which left only the property tax. But since it’s capped the rate could only come up marginally, and the additional revenue would only be around $1.2 million. And that’s when the budget axe came out.

There can be no doubt government sometimes spends money foolishly and often wastes it carelessly. And along with our friends and neighbors we have little taste for raising the tax burden of a citizenry already straining under a nearly intolerable load, working more and harder for less and less.

But we think the point here is less about which action to take than what options are available. Federalism is supposed to mean local control over local affairs, to as great a degree as possible consistent with the rights each and every one of us enjoy as individual American citizens, regardless of where in the country we live. Unfunded mandates run directly counter to that central tenet of our founding philosophy. They are the flip side of taxation without representation; instead of money being taken without consent, spending is dictated without support, forcing those we have chosen from among us to lead to follow instead.

Twenty-seven states have banned unfunded mandates. We believe it is time for New York to follow suit. Whatever one’s politics, one simple fact should be clear: it is patently and unarguably unfair to, on the one hand, demand a county government spend money, while simultaneously denying that county the right to choose for itself how to raise it. If the state or federal government wishes to create a program, so be it. They should also pay for it. We understand the need in these trying times to tighten our belts and do more with less. But a tightened belt shouldn’t be a noose.

School board asked to fight unfunded mandates

By RICHARD HALLETT
richard@theballstonJournal.com

Before the Ballston Spa Central School board got down to the business end of its Wednesday, September 7 meeting, 15-year resident Lisa Donovan stepped to the podium and asked the board to “fight back against unfunded mandates” she said put an unfair tax burden on district residents.

“When a federal or state government imposes a regulation without the necessary funding, it becomes the responsibility of the state or local government to pay for the implementation of the law,” said Donovan. “So who pays for these mandates? We all pay through our local school and property taxes.”

Donovan, who spoke during the “public comment” portion of the meeting, cited statistics showing median property taxes paid by New Yorkers were 96 percent above the national median.

“When property taxes were measured as a percentage of home value, nine out of the 10 highest taxed counties in the nation were in New York,” said Donovan.

Donovan said to help ease the problems of unfunded mandates and high property taxes, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has created a Mandate Relief Redesign Team that advocates for a constitutional amendment prohibiting new unfunded or underfunded mandates.

“To support the push for constitutional action, many school districts are passing resolutions demanding relief from these mandates,” said Donovan. She said 27 states—including Massachusetts, New Jersey, California and Illinois—have done so already.

“I encourage [the board] to consider this information and pass a similar resolution, and then communicate the passage of the resolution so taxpayers in this district know that their school board is fighting to save them from additional taxes,” said Donovan.

District School Board President Keith Stewart said the board would discuss this matter under “old business” at its next scheduled meeting.

In other business, the board accepted a $25,000 grant from State Farm Insurance to help support learning service projects for district students during the 2011-12 school year.

Among the programs slated for support are teen-driver safety, in-school banking and financial literacy awareness. The board also accepted a $10,000 grant from Time Warner, Inc. The next school board meeting will be held Wednesday, September 21, at 7 p.m. at the high school library.