News & Opinion » News

New date and new deal?


Last week, by a single vote, the County Legislature voted to move the budget's due date to after Election Day.

Thirteen of the 14 speakers who attended the public hearing opposed the law. The single speaker favoring the measure was Robert Fischer, co-chair of the team that first recommended it. But Majority Leader Bill Smith dismissed other testimony, suggesting that some of the other speakers (with ties to the Democratic Party) were plants, summoned by the Dems to try to derail the legislation, or at least make the GOP look bad for passing it.

During the course of the debate, the Democrats introduced five amendments --- one requiring a preliminary budget before Election Day, for instance, and another adding a one-year sunset provision. All were voted down, usually along party lines.

The legislation passed 15 to 14 without amendment. Republicans Bob Colby and Ciaran Hanna both voted against it, with no explanation.

Republicans, who in the past talked mainly about taking politics out of the budget process, focused their arguments Tuesday on getting more accurate information with which to build a budget.

That's what Kate Carrano, budget director for WestchesterCounty, brought up when asked about the arrangement the day after the vote.

"That's wonderful news for the county," she said.

Westchester is the other large county in New YorkState with a post-Election Day budget submission, which it's had since 1938, according to Carrano. Unlike Monroe, Westchester has historically sound finances and a AAA bond rating.

"It gives the people who put together the budget much more time," she says. "You'll have a much better handle on what's going on in the state budget."

Like supporters of the measure here, Carrano also lauds the arrangement for removing politics from the budget-making process. Still, she admits, the budget's never completely free from political influence.

"Sure there are political overtones, just like any other budget," she says. That's mitigated, she says, by the normal checks and balances of government. Her office serves both the CountyExecutive and the CountyLegislature. They're both Democratic at the moment, she says, but "I have never seen a legislature be a rubber stamp in WestchesterCounty."

So now that Maggie Brooks has another month to craft this year's budget, what does that mean?

The day after the Lej vote, Monroe County Budget Director Bill Carpenter was reserved about what to expect come November 15. He's received wish lists from each of the county's departments, and whittled them down by several million dollars. But, he added, "There are a lot of important decisions that that the county executive has not made yet."

About a year ago, Brooks estimated that the county would face a budget gap of about $45.7 million this fiscal year. At first, Carpenter was coy about where that figure stands now, since changes are constantly being made.

Asked what the budget gap is now he replied, chuckling: "Do you want to know this morning or this afternoon?" He eventually confirmed, though, that it stands at about the $45.7 million predicted.

That means, he admitted, that to avoid service cuts in the 2007 budget --- which Brooks has pledged to do --- the county is "going to require more revenue that what we'll get from property tax and sales tax."

Earlier this year, Brooks unveiled a budget fix that she called the "Community Solution." She proposed raising the sales tax by three-quarters of a penny and opting into an arrangement that would have the state pay the county's Medicaid bill and take it out of the county's sales-tax revenue. That plan has faded from the headlines and appears all but dead.

But Carpenter doesn't think so.

"To me, it's still possible that we will have a sales tax by December 1," he says.

Really? Even though the State Legislature would have to approve it and local Assembly Leader David Gantt has said it's out of the question?

"The county executive and the mayor continue to talk with the understanding that if an agreement is reached, David Gantt could be persuaded," says Carpenter.

Rochester Deputy Mayor Patty Malgieri confirms that the city and county are in discussions.

"We have been talking for months with the county at every level," she says. She won't confirm whether a sales-tax hike is being discussed, however.

"We do not talk about any parts of what we're discussing," she says. That might hinder the city's negotiating ability.

But even if a deal between Duffy and Brooks is in the works, there's no guarantee Gantt could be persuaded.

Carpenter, though, refuses to be pessimistic.

"That's what the county executive would like to see happen," he says. And Gantt may have reason to rethink his early opposition. A sales-tax hike might disproportionately hurt those at the lowest income levels, a significant number of whom live in Gantt's district. But "certainly raising property taxes in his district is not a good thing for his constituents," either, Carpenter points out.

Yet for all his optimism, Carpenter's a budget director, not a negotiator. Surely he must have come up with an alternative budget in the event that the sales tax hits a snag, right?

That's one question Carpenter won't answer, but even his evasion is instructive:

"Now you've put me in a position where if I say 'Here's an idea of a backup plan,' and David Gantt reads that and says 'Oh, really,' he'll dig in his heels even deeper."