Maggie Brooks has vowed to continue County Executive Jack Doyle's policy of freezing the property tax levy --- the amount of property tax money the county takes in. The result has been continuing cuts in the county property tax rate. The policy is crucial, she says, to attracting and maintaining businesses. It's also, she says, what the community has asked for. The policy has drawn criticism from her opponent, some area business leaders, and bond rating agencies. Moody's Investors Service downgraded the county's credit rating from A1 to A3 last year. Both are upper-medium investment grades, but Moody's also gave the county a "negative" economic outlook, which is the agency's opinion of the likely direction of the credit rating over the next 12 to 18 months.
Maggie Brooks: It always seems to come down to, "Well, you're not going to raise taxes; what services are you going to cut?" We've been very clear about the fact that we're not going to do either. We're going to approach the government with an aggressive streamlining program. That's the way I've operated the County Clerk's Office, and it's worked. We've saved money. Things like applying technology across the board, the way we deliver services, the way we handle process. That's allowed us to save money without reducing staff.
We'd also be looking to outsource in a very aggressive way. I think there are opportunities in aging services, for example, where we can partner with entities like Lifespan and other service organizations.
The final component is, consolidate service and collaborate with other levels of government. We have more intermunicipal and more shared-service agreements than any other county in New York State.
You have to understand what Wall Street's problem is with Monroe County. Wall Street clearly has advocated that the county raise taxes. And Wall Street has expressed concern that Monroe County does not have a rainy-day fund, a surplus fund. What I see Wall Street advocating is that Monroe County essentially go out and borrow money to create a rainy-day fund. I think that's almost an irresponsible recommendation.
The counties that have been rewarded by Wall Street are the counties that have raised taxes to solve their financial problems. They want to see the money and know if you raise taxes, the money is there and there's no risk at all. I don't think Wall Street should be determining the financial direction that we go in as a community. We don't answer to Wall Street. We answer to the taxpayers.
We cannot keep going back to the deep pockets of taxpayers. We're going to tax ourselves out of a future, because businesses won't come here. Young people won't stay here. It's the easy out.
Clearly, we want to stabilize the economy. Instead of looking at taxation, let's go out there and bring businesses and opportunity here so we do have a stronger tax base, so we do have people spending more money here, investing more money here.
Certainly, we have to strengthen our relationship with Wall Street. The credit rating is important. I'm not downplaying that at all.
Brooks advocates combining the city and county economic development departments, to eliminate competition between the two. The resulting entity, she says, should work with Greater Rochester Enterprise and individual towns and villages through the Council of Governments to coordinate economic development.
Brooks says Johnson hasn't done enough to create a strong economic climate in the city, one that would absorb more of the people being laid off by Kodak. She also promotes tying the transit center project to a performing arts center and an MCC-proposed Advanced Technology Center through the federal Livable Communities Initiative. The initiative, she says, would make available federal transportation dollars for the projects if they were within a certain distance from the transit center.
Brooks: Think of the morale boost for people in this community to see a crane in downtown Rochester; to see us actually accomplishing something.
We need to diversify in this community, and that's one thing I would do differently from our current county executive and from the mayor. We are no longer a manufacturing community. Kodak, I hope, will always have a presence here. But we won't have the thousands of jobs that Kodak has provided in the past. If they have to downsize and get rid of buildings, we have to help them with incentives to attract other manufacturing entities to use those buildings.
But we also have to diversify. We have to reach out to high-tech segments, emerging technologies, and those areas. We have to recognize that we are a biomedical and research community. We have to recognize that 80 percent of the job growth is now in small- and medium-business areas. We have to build on those strengths and develop an economic strategy that includes the city and the county --- potentially the region --- and takes into account those strengths.
We're proposing to put together an economic roundtable. This is a group that would include stakeholders from every constituency in the community: colleges and universities, labor, not-for-profit, business, faith.... These are people who would help us create a community vision. This group would be an ongoing mechanism that could interact with county government and be a guiding force when it comes to economic development strategy.
If we had an economy that could somehow absorb more of the people that are coming out of Kodak.... If you go back to Bill Johnson's original manifesto when he ran for mayor, he promised two things: to deal with crime and to deal with education. Those are the two key reasons people are leaving the city. He failed to do both. This is at a time when he's raised taxes 38 percent, he's had millions more in sales-tax dollars to work with. What has he done to stimulate growth in the downtown area? That's all I'm asking people to do: Look at the record in the city.
Brooks embraces consolidation of some services but is adamantly opposed to merging any governments. Any government consolidation, she says, would deprive people of the right to choose where they live. And, she says, mergers wouldn't save money or solve problems.
Brooks: I've talked to people in the city who don't want metro government because they like their city neighborhoods. They like their city schools. They've chosen to live in the city for a reason, because of the character and the diversity.
Instead of talking about eliminating or changing government structure, let's talk about changing the cultural mentality that divides the city and the county; the mindset that city problems should be handled differently than county problems; that the city crime problem is the city's problem; that only the city should think about revitalization of downtown. That's absolutely ridiculous.
It's very, very simple. We have a county executive and a city mayor who don't talk to each other. Where are we going as a community if that continues? We have to have two leaders who work together, standing side by side when it comes to advocating for economic development, working with our colleges and universities, when it comes to going to Albany to lobby for some mandate relief. That's the difference in my style and my approach. I work very much in a bipartisan fashion.
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 real proof of the savings.
Brooks endorses the reform and says she believes it will save money this year. But she says the project has several problems: It was undertaken in a top-down fashion with no real input from staff; technology upgrades haven't happened fast enough; and there is still a transitional administrative staff on board at the Department of Human and Health Services. And rather than make across-the-board cuts in funding for non-profit service providers, as Doyle did, Brooks says she would work with the providers to divide available funds.
Brooks: I think there is no dispute that there will be documented savings from that program. I'm not saying it was implemented ideally. But the result is, there will be some savings there.
I think you have to go back and re-evaluate what's been done. If I'm elected, I want to go in there and take a look at it and talk to people. It doesn't help to have an acting Human and Health Services director at this point. That individual is going to have to reflect the values and vision of whoever is county executive, and also the values and vision of the staff.
To flesh out Brooks' candidacy, we asked her to discuss her political philosophy. She supports privatization, but believes there are certain areas, including public safety, that are the responsibility of government. She supports government funding for service provided by religious organizations, if there is careful scrutiny of those organizations and their services.
Brooks: I am very much in favor of the [faith-based] concept, especially in education. [Teachers] are not just educators anymore. They're social workers, they're ministers, psychologists.... We need to get our faith community and all segments of the community involved in how we deal with education.
To just say that, across-the-board, we're going to supply tax dollars to any agency or organization that proclaims itself a faith-based initiative organization: I'm not sure that's a very practical commitment to make.
Right now, the county government is very much the bank for a lot of these programs and services. But we don't have the expertise to go out there and say, what are the programs that work? Where is the need in the community?