So much for that city-county romance we were promised post election.
The county legislature may vote this week on a $972 million budget proposal. Republican county legislators say they are running out of options to close a $42 million chasm in the 2004 budget. The sales tax increase proposed by Jack Doyle is dead on arrival, according to Democrats in the state assembly. Republican and Democratic leadership have declared a pox on the property tax. So, cuts seem like the only place to go. And cuts are what the GOP is focusing most of its energy on, according to Republican Legislator Ray Santirocco.
But a new idea has surfaced recently: putting welfare on a charge-back system. Safety Net is a state program for people not eligible for the federal welfare program. The cost is split between the state and the county. Under the new proposal, Safety Net costs would be assessed to the municipalities in which the recipients live, with the municipalities assumingly receiving a bill, according to Republican Legislator Dennis Pelletier. County government would no longer be responsible for the local portion of the funding.
Ninety-percent of Safety Net recipients are city residents. It is estimated the shift will cost the city around $15 million.
"We're looking at a $41 million [deficit]," says Mayor Bill Johnson. "So, if they were to impose another $14 or $15 million on top of it, it would just be catastrophic."
Johnson called the idea "a thunderbolt out of left field."
"I think it would do grave damage to the intermunicipal cooperation that the Republicans love to brag about, including Maggie Brooks, who touted this frequently during her campaign," he says. "If this were something that was being done in an orderly fashion, you would think that someone from the county would call here and say, 'Here's what the plan is.' We have to hear about it from the minority caucus and we have to read about it in the newspaper."
The city is looking into its legal options, should the county implement the plan.
"There's too much potential for catastrophic disruption. I just don't see it going anyplace," Johnson says. "But I can't leave that to chance, so we are rushing here to really try to understand what legal rights we have. And we're going to exercise every one of them."
The idea behind programs like Safety Net is one of community. Everyone pays because "we never know when any one of us will be needing those services," says Timothy Kneeland, professor of political science at Nazareth College.
"No one is guaranteed health or vitality for the rest of their lives. Or one never knows how well their pension is going to be funded," he says. "So these Safety Net programs are there to protect all of us."
The possible shift is a "wonderful political game," Kneeland says, because it allows Republicans to say they're treating all municipalities fairly. They can claim that all municipalities will have to pay for their own recipients, even though the vast majority of those recipients are residents of the city of Rochester.
"Then you can say, 'We're not abandoning Rochester. We're just asking everyone to pay [their] fair share,'" Kneeland says.
Poor people, Kneeland says, are often trapped in the city because of the lack of affordable housing in the suburbs and lack of adequate public transportation.
"You might be able to win a job, but how are you going to get to work?" he says.
City residents pay more than $55 million a year in county taxes, Johnson says.
"What the Republican caucus is trying to do is push every expense that it can to the city and off the county budget," Johnson says. "We'd be in the very untenable position of being taxpayers with nothing in return."
"We're always portrayed as being wards, people who only receive," he says.
Another benefit for the county is that shifting Safety Net may force municipalities to raise property taxes, but the county can preserve its policy of freezing the tax levy.
"That way, they might be able to get a property tax increase without having to break Maggie's [Brooks] pledge," Kneeland says.
Tracy Logel, deputy majority leader in the legislature and newly elected Chili town supervisor, confirms that the Safety Net shift is being talked about.
"Hey, the county's at a point now where they've got to do it," she says. "What can you do?"
The proposed shift, Logel says, would cost Chili about $1 million.
"It hits the town of Chili," she says. "Where am I supposed to find an extra $1 million?"
Logel couldn't say whether the GOP would have an alternate proposal to Doyle's budget by the full lej meeting this week. If a budget isn't passed by November 25, the lej has to meet every day, including weekends and holidays, for at least two hours until a budget is passed or until the second Tuesday in December. If they don't pass a budget by that date, Doyle's original proposal goes into effect.
The Safety Net proposal may be a strategy, Kneeland says, to scare county Democrats.
"I'm hoping that it's some sort of ploy to get Democrats back to the table," he says. "I don't know if you heard the language on election night, but Aldersley [Democratic minority leader Stephanie Aldersley] was not particularly interested in talking" about plans to close the budget gap.
Indeed, Democrats seems to be taking a hands-off approach in the county budget process.
"It's their [Republicans] obligation to present the budget," says Democrat legislator Carla Palumbo.
There are no signs, either, of the resurgence of the Independence caucus that rescued last year's budget process. Three Republicans (George Wiedemer, Ray Santirocco, and Peter McCann), joined by three Democrats (José Cruz, Palumbo, and Lynda Garner Goldstein), put together a bipartisan budget proposal with a modest property tax increase. Most of the six legislators are part of the Independence caucus --- as in, endorsed by the Independence Party.
Palumbo says last year was different. Doyle made the budget problems public almost three months earlier, so the caucus had more time to work. And even after last year's property tax increase --- approved over Doyle's veto --- the county didn't use the money the way Palumbo thought it should.
"I don't see any leadership from the Independence caucus at all," she says.
And politics plays a role, as well. County executive-elect Maggie Brooks says she can balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting services.
So, Palumbo says, let her try.
"Let's see," she says. "I'd like to see that."