It's not going to be pretty. Faced with a projected 2005 budget deficit of nearly $55 million, County Executive Maggie Brooks has lived up to one campaign promise: to gather recommendations for county savings from a handpicked Budget Advisory Team. But some of the team's key recommendations --- like multi-year budget planning and stabilizing the property tax rate --- either call for a whole new way of thinking in the legislature or for Brooks to hedge on campaign promises.
During her campaign, Maggie Brooks vowed to continue former 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, Brooks has said, to attracting and maintaining businesses. It's also, she said, what the community has asked for. But, as the advisory team points out, keeping the rate --- rather than the levy --- stable would allow the county to boost its tax revenue by reaping added income from assessment increases and new development.
That's a promise Brooks shouldn't feel guilty for abandoning, according to one observer. "I was pleased that the group recommended keeping the tax rate constant," says Kent Gardner, director of economic analysis for the Center for Governmental Research. "Keeping the tax rate constant instead of the tax levy is the right decision." He pointed out that a blue-ribbon panel headed by Tom Richards under the Jack Doyle administration made a similar recommendation --- one that went unheeded.
"Now Maggie Brooks' own task force has made that recommendation," Gardner says. "I know it's difficult to walk away from a campaign promise, but it's the right thing to do. I hope she does that."
The advisory team's number-one recommendation is to implement multi-year forecasting in the budget process. And in a bi-partisan referral issued Tuesday with Republican County Legislature President Wayne Zyra and Democratic County Legislator Mitch Rowe, Brooks proposes a new local law that would enforce multi-year planning. A draft version of the law released Tuesday called for a forecast of revenue and expenses "for two fiscal years beyond the proposed operating budget."
In the past, Republican county legislators like Majority Leader Bill Smith have dismissed multi-year planning as both unreliable and a political move by the Democratic minority. He claimed it was aimed at providing fodder for complaints against Republican leadership if predictions proved inaccurate.
"In the business world, a lot of companies do five-year plans, and I don't know if anybody's ever seen a five-year plan ever that has actually resembled what was predicted five years before," Smith said in a 2003 interview with City Newspaper. "It's too far out. I think that goes double with government, with the fluctuation in the tax base and the changes at state policy level when it comes to funding and distribution of funds, over which local government has no control whatsoever. To a large extent, it's like trying to do five-year planning for what the weather's going to be like." Smith did not return calls for comment by press time Tuesday.
Now, Monroe County Democratic Party Chair Molly Clifford is blasting Republicans for rejecting multi-year planning the first time around on partisan grounds: "It's incredibly ironic that several of the task force's recommendations, including multi-year budgeting, were originally proposed by Democrats and shot down by the Republican majority," she said in a Monday press release.
A part of the law Brooks proposes would also enact the team's recommendations to change the submission date of the county budget from the second week of October to November 15. County Legislature Minority Leader Stephanie Aldersley doesn't favor moving that date.
"I'm afraid I won't be able to support that. I'll be surprised if any one in our caucus does either," she says. The advisory team's recommendation expressed concern that the current submission date causes "partisan political posturing" because it comes just before fall elections. Aldersley sharply disagrees, responding "The budget is the most important document we adopt. It shows very clearly the different philosophies of each side. It's important for the public to know how the different parties will be spending their money."
"The commission report is really a collection of tax increases and service cuts," she says. "To help her do that without her paying a political price, the commission said 'Approve our recommendations but we'll give you until after the election to do that so you won't have to pay the political price.'"
The second recommendation on the advisory team's list is the elimination of 400 to 500 county jobs. Doing so, says the team, is "absolutely critical to ensuring the current and future stability of the county's finances."
Part of Brooks' campaign pledge was to implement what she called an "aggressive streamlining program."
"That's the way I've operated the County Clerk's Office, and it's worked," she told City Newspaper in a pre-election interview last fall. "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."
Will Brooks be able to apply to the entire county administration the same streamlining she succeeded with as County Clerk without reducing staff? We won't know until she introduces her 2005 budget proposal in mid-November. But based on the advisory team's report, that seems highly unlikely. "It is impossible to achieve budget targets without reductions in [the] most significant budget category," states the report. And the largest individual county budget category is personnel.
It didn't take the advisory team's report to make it clear that the county's financial woes are large and structural.
In a 2003 interview with City Newspaper, Tom Richards outlined his ideas for rescuing Monroe County from its financial demise. And for Richards, who now serves as chairman of Greater Rochester Enterprise, it all starts with trust.
"We need a new, different kind of consensus within government to [fix the county's finances]," Richards said. To reach that consensus, he said, there has to be trust between the parties. And that starts with open, honest sharing of financial information. Democrats have complained for years about what they say is a lack of just that kind of openness on the part of the Republican administration.
Withholding information also "narrows the range of debate," Richards said. Sharing information, he said, is "almost as important as what you do, because it builds the foundation on which you can begin to make progress."
To download a copy of the Budget Advisory Team's report, "From Crisis To Stability," go to www.monroecounty.gov/documentView.asp?docID=4136