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The good budget



In a remarkable display of sobriety and honesty, the Republicans in the County Legislature have passed a budget --- the first rational one in years.

            "Rational" may be too generous a word: It's absurd to cut funding for school nurses but continue to provide police services for wealthy towns that could well afford to pay for their own.

            Still, there's much to applaud. Most significantly, the Republicans did what they had to do, raising property taxes 13.3 percent.

            Nobody likes tax hikes of that magnitude. But the Republicans simply took county property taxes back to about where they'd have been had Jack Doyle not recklessly cut them over the past 10 years.

            Equally important, the Republicans have now learned --- and told --- the truth. They can't solve the county's financial problems with service cuts. There is nothing left to cut.

            That means County Executive-elect Maggie Brooks will take office next month under unusual circumstances. Last month, she trounced her Democratic opponent, Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson, who had said that if he were elected, he would have to raise property taxes. Brooks had promised that she could balance the budget without a tax increase and without cutting services.

            Republican legislators have shown that to be the sham that it was. And now they're on record saying that the county can't make any more cuts --- and that expenses will continue to go up. Unless Brooks finds some creative ways to hide the problem, when she puts together the 2005 budget she'll have to raise taxes.

Legislator Democrats are apparently furious that the Republicans cavalierly abandoned Brooks' promises. "Voters in Monroe County have been duped," they said at a Monday press conference. Fair enough; anybody with any sense knew Brooks was either clueless or was lying about taxes and service cuts. And her stand, no doubt, helped her defeat Johnson. But it's time to look ahead, and the Democrats have missed a golden opportunity to be statesmen.

            At their press conference, they could have pointed out that the Republicans have finally come to their senses. They could have urged the Republicans to join them in seeking long-term solutions to the county's financial problems.

            Instead, the Democrats insisted that when Brooks takes office next month, she should immediately roll back the tax increase.

            Either they naively believe they could balance the budget without raising taxes this much, or they were indulging in partisan political theater.

            Partisanship in politics is important, and often necessary. But in Monroe County, as in Albany, we've carried partisanship to an absurd point. The community is suffering for it.

            And so, frankly, is politics. Voters seem increasingly cynical, and who can blame them? Unfortunately, politicians can not lead the public when the public has no faith in them.

            Tough days are ahead of us. This will not be the last time the county will have to raise property taxes. Solving future budget problems will take courage. And it will take cooperation and trust.

            With its action last week, legislature Republicans told the public the truth and headed the county back in the right direction. And they laid the groundwork for taking bold steps that could lower the cost of government, lower taxes, and build a stronger community.

            Consolidated fire services, tax-base sharing, true regional economic-development efforts: Monroe County will have to embrace serious governmental reform to avoid continual budget crises. With the 2004 budget problem solved (at least for the moment), legislature Republicans and Democrats could start looking ahead and working together.

            With the current level of hostility, though, there's not much hope that'll happen.

            If there are wiser heads in both parties --- in elected office or not --- now's the time for them to show some leadership.

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