Local officials say Cuomo's tax freeze plan is misguided


Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposal to freeze property taxes has plenty of critics, now including the Monroe County Council of Governments. The Council of Governments is made up of the leaders of local towns and villages, the City of Rochester, and the county. It also includes representatives from local school districts.

Under Cuomo's plan, property owners across the state would get tax credits to offset local property tax increases. But to receive those credits, the local governments — including school districts and county governments — need to take steps to share or consolidate services with other nearby governments. Cuomo and legislative leaders are currently negotiating the final 2014 state budget, and the tax freeze proposal is part of those talks.

During a press conference this morning, representatives of the Council of Governments said that Monroe County municipalities and school districts already have a long history of sharing services. They said that the governor's proposal ignores that fact and inappropriately shifts the blame for high property taxes to local governments.

"We can't consolidate our way to fiscal health because local governments are not the problem," said County Executive Maggie Brooks.

Brooks listed a few countywide examples of shared or centralized services, including certain library operations, Civil Service administration, 911 call center, public safety training facility, and the Youth Bureau.

Other speakers gave additional local examples. The Town of Webster and the Webster school district share a fueling station and athletic fields, said Webster schools Superintendent Adele Bovard. Gates Supervisor Mark Assini said his town shares a building inspector with Greece and an assessor with Chili.

Approximately 10 local towns have formed a consortium to buy health insurance — a move that's saving the governments $5 million, said Chili Supervisor David Dunning. And 19 local school districts banded together to do the same, which is saving approximately $126 million a year, Bovard said. 

East Rochester has a long history of working cooperatively with neighboring communities, said Mayor Fred Ricci. It's been necessary, he said, because state support for services has decreased. 

"We're exhausted," he said. "We just privatized our ambulance service."

The speakers said that Cuomo should take the funding he wants to use for the credits and put it toward the cost of state mandates. If the governor used that money to pay for a larger portion of Medicaid costs, for example, the local tax levy would decrease, Brooks said. (Brooks has long criticized the state for passing down costs to the county, and she says that 83 percent of the county budget is dictated by state or federal requirements.)

The speakers made important points, but today's event could also be read as political. Most of the speakers are Republican town supervisors; Assini is runnning against Democratic House Representative Louise Slaughter; and Brooks supports Cuomo's Republican challenger, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. Ricci was the only elected Democrat present. (As a school superintendent, Bovard is not elected to her job and I'll confess to having no idea what her political leanings are.)

At least one member of the Council of Governments does support Cuomo's tax freeze proposal, however. Last week, Irondequoit Supervisor Adam Bello, a Democrat, told me he backs the plan, and his name has since appeared on a list of supporters sent out by Cuomo's office.