Maggie Brooks and Bill Johnson have diametrically opposed views on this issue. Johnson says although property-tax increases would be a "last resort," he can't rule them out because economic growth won't happen fast enough to solve the county's financial problems. Freezing the property tax levy --- the amount the county takes in --- as the Doyle administration has done over the last seven years, has cost the county millions of dollars and has actually translated into a tax cut, Johnson says, as property values have risen. Keeping the property tax rate flat --- which would still allow the county to collect more in taxes as property values increased --- would have generated $94 million over the last seven years, he says.
Bill Johnson: The current administration is determined to leave office with its books balanced. Jack Doyle would never want it said that he left office with the county in the red. So all of his energies are being devoted toward this short-term objective, which means he's leaving very little wiggle room for his successor. And so they haven't fixed the structural deficit. And there's a humungous bill coming on the pension payments.
There is no conceivable way this can be cured by waiting for an economic upturn, as Maggie says, by generating some economic recovery. The twin parts of my agenda are to examine issues of consolidation as a way of cost saving, of reducing redundancy, to free up money that can be used to address the structural deficits, and a willingness to consider tax increases as a last resort.
I can't say, "We're going to squeeze the fat out of the government." That view presumes that there's not a lot the government ought to be doing. This crowd from Washington through Albany and into Monroe County has shown that they place a low premium on some of these services. But there's another group of people who understand their government services are very, very valuable, and they aren't free.
People say, "Well, he raised taxes in the city 38 percent." But look what we've done with them. We're putting them back, investing them back in the community, and the community understands. And they have never been oppressive, huge tax increases.
Johnson says one key to economic growth is better collaboration and less competition among the county's municipalities. He has called for a non-competitive agreement, and says the region must find a way to act as one in attracting new business and industry.
Johnson wants to expand the Council of Governments --- which brings together county and town leaders --- into a Finger Lakes Council that would include Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, Orleans, Steuben, and Wayne counties.
Monroe County should coordinate its economic development efforts with Greater Rochester Enterprise --- an independent, regional economic development group --- to market the community as a whole, instead of different factions competing against each other, he says.
Johnson: I've seized on this situation of Kohl's coming into this market and negotiating with four different municipalities, clearly finding out where they can get the best deal. This is a classic example of where county focus could come.
We made this huge investment in Irondequoit Mall, and it is suffering grievously. That ought to be a matter of some priority. Rather than building a brand new mall somewhere, turning more green space to asphalt, why not try to determine what set of strategies could be brought to bear?
Right now, each town is left to its own devices. They're out for growth, and everything is fair game. To the same extent, there's a lot of commercial activity that is also on the table that GRE should be the focal point for.
I believe the county should have an economic development staff, the city should have an economic development staff --- because there are going to be micro activities that are not going to be of any interest or concern to GRE. But the county and city agencies also need to be at the table with GRE. I just think that kind of roundtable is a permanent place where people are coming on a very regular basis.
Shortly after GRE was established, the county created the Monroe County Development Corporation. Some people see them as competing directly with GRE. We need to really consolidate those efforts.
This is the most controversial and misunderstood issue of the campaign. Johnson says he does not have a specific consolidation plan, and he won't outline specific areas he would look at. A proponent of regional solutions to lower the cost of government, Johnson says he personally favors studying the merger of city and county governments, but notes that voters, not the county executive, have the power to bring that about. He says he does not want to eliminate town or village governments. Likewise, he says he does not want to, nor could he without a change in state law, consolidate city and suburban school districts.
County officials frequently suggest that the city's water authority be consolidated into the county's, but Johnson says the city water system generates revenue for the city, and the county has never offered a fair price for it.
Johnson: Bill Johnson doesn't have any consolidation plan. I'm saying that we have to look at that as an option. If you accept that what's driving your high tax bill is government, and that here we've developed government into a fine art, we've got so many levels and units of government, then perhaps there is a more efficient way to provide the same caliber and quantity of service. There are a lot of small units of government trying to do the same thing.
Look at some of the things people fought hard to prevent, like the emergency response systems that we now call 911. Everybody wanted to dispatch their own fire, police, and ambulance. People finally realized how inefficient that was. They came together and created a system that people don't even think twice about.
Take insurance costs. Take fire. Do you all need the same kind of equipment in your arsenal if you're sitting two or three miles apart? Can you come up with a method of sharing?
It's going to be gradual. It can't be too slow, but it's really going to be getting people to a comfort level where they can embrace this whole concept.
[Regarding government or school-district consolidations] They have three protections built in. First, if there's any change in governance, it has to be approved by the local government. It has to go to Albany to be approved; then it's got to come back and be ratified by the people. Do you think the County Legislature controlled by 16 Republicans is going to vote to send a bill that I submit to eliminate the school district? Absolutely not. And it's still got to come back to the people, and every affected district's got to approve it. Any one has veto power.
We've never been adamantly opposed to a merging of the water authorities. There are strong points on both sides of the issue. We've never been offered fair value for that system. The city water authority generates, for lack of a better word, a profit, and it goes right to the bottom line. Without the revenue from the water authority, we would have another 3 or 4 percentage points on our property tax bill every year. All I'm saying is, I can't give it away.
County Executive Jack Doyle is claiming $30 million in savings from "Operation Transform," a reorganization of the way the county delivers social services. County Democrats, union leaders, and others, including daycare providers, are sharply critical of the project. They say it is hurting those who can least afford it. And Democrats say the county has provided no proof of the savings. The reorganization, Johnson says, isn't working.
Johnson: The fact of the matter is that the county operated on a premise that they could continue meeting their legal mandates with reduced staffing. Not only did that not happen, they cut the staff and the caseloads are going up. They've essentially de-stabilized that operation. Workers move from one area to another. They don't understand the program that they're trying to administer. On top of that, they are given these unmanageable caseloads.
The county can count on the fact that the public doesn't care. It's social services. It's poor people.
People haven't had the opportunity to see some of the unintended consequences. I'll give you a classic example: the reduction for drug treatment programs. The county reduced the quantity as well as the quality of care. The number of days a person could receive treatment was reduced substantially, and the way in which the service was delivered was reduced greatly: to 45 days inpatient, 15 days outpatient.
I think reform is needed in any institution. The part of the Altreya report that got completely overlooked was that this county is technologically backwards. I can understand that. You've got a choice here: You've got to pay for child care or buy a computer. But the county, because its economic situation was graver than it wanted to acknowledge, couldn't even go to the public and say, "Hey, we need to make this investment."
At one of the summer street festivals, I talked to a lady who ran a home daycare. She said, "I can't do it anymore. I employed six people, and the county was four, five months paying me." These are small businesses. And we're talking about how to get people off of welfare.
We're looking at the tip of the iceberg. I don't think we should get away easy with proclaiming, "Oh, by the way, we did what we said we were going to do" when you see the kind of chaos....