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Pucker up, piggie

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I'm picturing County Executive Jack Doyle sitting at his kitchen table, preparing to write his final State of the County address.

            It's late on a hot summer night, and Doyle is sweating through his cotton pajamas, his favorite pair, the ones with the little golfers on them (sorry to put that visual in your heads, folks). Reams of financial data on the county budget and the reorganization of county health and social services departments --- documents Democratic county legislators have been demanding, in vain, for months --- are stacked before him, held in place against the air conditioner's breeze by a hardcover copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.

            "OK," Doyle says, cracking his knuckles before fingering the keys of his laptop. "Time to put some lipstick on this pig."

How else can you describe the way Doyle's speech weaseled around the county's serious and ongoing fiscal problems? Last August, the county was in such dire financial straits that Doyle, doubting there'd even be money available to cut the grass in county parks, proposed closing them on weekdays. Of course, he ultimately decided to cut the grass often enough to keep the parks open, but he also decided to cut 700 county jobs, as well as funding for arts and educational organizations, health and social services agencies, the library --- the list is long.

            The hue and cry raised immediately after Doyle unveiled his "Property Tax Stability Plan" last summer eventually compelled a bipartisan group of county legislators to pass a budget, over Doyle's vetoes, that restored some of the executive's cuts and raised property taxes for the first time in nearly a decade.

            As the Blue Ribbon Commission's report on the county's books pointed out last fall, rather than "holding the line on property taxes," as Doyle boasted during his July 1 address, the property tax rate actually declined on his watch (the county collected the same amount of tax even as property values rose). While this policy was noble, it was also foolish and shortsighted. It clearly helped bring the county to its fiscal knees last year when, inevitably, the economy went sour.

            Even with last year's slight property tax hike, this year's budget is far from balanced. Doyle intends to borrow more money and use tobacco settlement funds previously set aside to pay for other debt to close this year's and last year's budget gaps: as much as $36 million combined.

            Oink.

As expected, the departing exec provided his audience with a list of accomplishments that he said "have been readily apparent in improving our community." The first: "Frontier Field, a beautiful sports facility for the community."

            Less apparent behind Frontier's façade is the fact the county is still paying about $1 million a year toward the over $20 million of debt it still owes on the field's construction. And the beautiful sports facility's finances won't improve much next year, when its second-most-important tenants, the Rochester Rhinos, leave for their own facility nearby.

            Doyle didn't mention PaeTec Park --- a stadium he was once so keen on that this staunch proponent of low taxes and increased tourism raised the hotel tax to help pay for it. Of course, he's since changed his mind, and is now putting money from that tax increase toward Frontier's debt.

            Though it costs more to stay in a local hotel, it's cheaper to fly here (or get away from here) thanks to accomplishment number two: coaxing discount airlines to do business at the airport. Thanks for that, Jack.

            But it's hard to cheer about most of his other accomplishments, like the new emergency operations center and the Health Alert Network, a collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control. The former was created for those times our weather goes from dismal to life threatening; the latter would ostensibly help protect us "from a biological outbreak or attack."

            Doyle listed the new jail, the Crime Victims Resource Center in Corn Hill, and the Crime Victims Memorial in Highland Park as "readily apparent accomplishments."

            God forbid they become apparent to you.

            He also had the gall to boast of his support for a juvenile justice center, just days after he announced his intention to use the $15 million in tobacco money the county set aside for the project to help cover deficits in the operating budgets. There's talk from his administration about using existing facilities for a JJC, but details, as usual, are scarce. And if that's an equally viable option, why wasn't this cheaper alternative set up years ago?

            Finally Doyle declared that "we are the only upstate community that is experiencing real and substantial growth." If this isn't "readily apparent" to you, don't be surprised.

            From 1990 to 1999, the Monroe-Rochester region experienced slow, but steady growth --- better growth than many parts of the state, but anemic compared with much of the nation. And beginning in 2000, the region suffered a substantial net job loss.

            From the first quarter of 2002 to the first quarter of 2003, the six-county Greater Rochester area lost 10,000 jobs, according to a report by the Center for Governmental Research titled "Close-up on the NYS Economy." In fact, in those 12 months, the job loss in the Greater Rochester area --- 1.8 percent --- was second only to that of Binghamton (2.3 percent). The loss in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area was .3 percent. Syracuse had a net job gain of 1 percent. Utica-Rome: .6 percent. Glens Falls: 1.2 percent.

            This pig may be prettier, but it still stinks.

            Includes reporting by Mary Anna Towler.

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