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Maggie got it right

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OK, let's get this off our chests. When Bill Johnson ran for county executive last year, he told the truth: The county would have to raise property taxes. Maggie Brooks insisted that she wouldn't do that.

            Bill Johnson lost the election. Maggie Brooks won.

            Taxes certainly weren't the only issue in the campaign; the Republicans' scare-tactics over "metro" probably guaranteed that Maggie would win. But now, safely in office for the next three years, Maggie's doing what she insisted she wouldn't do. The budget she proposed last week would increase property taxes.

            This had to happen. The county has a serious financial problem: Costs have been skyrocketing, and the county hasn't been taking in enough money to pay for them.

            Much of the increase is beyond the county's control. State leaders continue to make counties bear the burden of Medicaid funding, for instance. But the county has made matters worse with its flat-tax policy.

            Property values in some parts of Monroe County have been rising. If the county had kept the tax rate the same, you'd have paid a little more taxes if your property value increased. And the county would have taken in more money.

            When Jack Doyle was county executive, though, he kept cutting the tax rate. He kept the tax levy --- the amount of money the county took in --- flat, despite the increase in property values.

            I understand the appeal of flat taxes. This is a high-tax state. But Doyle's policy was a terrible mistake. It's not just me saying that. Local business leaders have said so. Even some brave Republican county legislators have said so.

            Doyle's policy was expensive: Thanks to the county's poor fiscal condition, its bond rating dropped --- and the county had to pay more to borrow money.

            Now, Maggie's doing the right thing. I wish she were doing it the right way. She insisted last week that she has not changed her policy. She has, of course. She said clearly during the campaign that she would not raise either the tax rate or the tax levy. Last Thursday, WXXI radio aired a tape of her saying just that.

            The Democrats are furious. At a press conference on Wednesday, party chair Molly Clifford focused on Brooks' flip-flop. Thursday afternoon, legislature minority leader Stephanie Aldersley told me that the Democrats were starting to review the enormous budget document, so she couldn't yet comment on the budget specifics. But, she said, "I'll be honest. It's ironic to me that Maggie has done exactly what the mayor said he would do. It galls me. He was honest, and it cost him the election. That really sticks in my craw."

            Sure it does. And it galls me that a lot of voters fell for that line. But now what?

            Will the Democrats do the right thing, and embrace Brooks' move to let property taxes go up on some properties? Or will they keep focusing on Brooks' flip flop and try to turn it into some kind of political gain?

            County legislators will vote on the budget next month. They'll hold a public hearing on November 4. Between now and then the media, legislators, and community activists will be reviewing the expense parts of the budget, and there'll be plenty to talk about besides the tax rate.

            But the tax rate is important. And the Democrats and the public have a choice: either rage against the flip flop, or agree that Maggie has done the right thing, and move forward.

            "Maggie has the charisma to be able to call the community together," Aldersley said when I talked with her last week. Indeed she does. So, in fact, do a number of Democrats --- in the county legislature and in City Hall. The man Maggie defeated last November, Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, has already done the statesmanlike thing, focusing on the need to let the tax levy increase.

            Democrats in the legislature need to do the same. Yes, they need to keep pressing the county on the issue of importing Canadian drugs. That'll save money for county taxpayers. But I don't think Democrats will be able to find enough savings and "waste" in Maggie's budget to keep taxes flat. And there's every indication that the county's fiscal problems will continue after this year.

            It's crucial that the county move toward financial stability. Republicans, after years of fiscal mismanagement, have taken the first step. It's time for Democrats to congratulate them --- and join them.

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