County Executive Maggie Brooks is someone who chooses her words carefully, and no doubt she spent a lot of time reflecting as she prepared last week's State of the County address. As her last State of the County speech, it was her chance to frame her legacy.
For the most part, she stuck to the same basic form and themes we heard in her 10 previous addresses: collaboration, county finances, and economic development. And it's clear that she sees those areas as key to her legacy. But the speech also had its usual holes, especially around county finances and economic development.
As Brooks spoke to the audience at Irondequoit High School - a crowd that seemed smaller than at her past addresses - she said that she's worked with five mayors during her tenure, and had strong partnerships with all of them. "But I must admit," she said, "the ability to work well with Mayor Lovely Warren has been unique and productive."
But come budget time, Brooks has also cut off some funding to the city. A few years ago, one of her budgets eliminated the county's contribution to downtown policing, for example.
And as she talked about the county's cost-saving collaborative efforts with local governments and its "partnerships" with companies such as Waste Management, she didn't touch on county-linked local development corporations. In the past, she's touted the LDCs as public-private partnerships that save taxpayers money. But two of those LDC's are at the center of a bid-rigging case, brought by the state attorney general's office. And Brooks' husband is one of the four defendants.
When she took office in 2004, the county had no money in its savings account, she said, and was searching for quick revenues to plug budget gaps. It now has $20 million in reserves and ended 2014 with a $9 million surplus, she said. And at the same time, her administration has not just kept the tax rate flat, but has decreased it, she said.
The same can't be said, though, for county tax bills. Property owners have seen additional charges on their tax bills, because the county changed how it pays for certain things, including its contribution to Monroe Community College. That charge is based on the number of MCC students in a property owner's community, and the shift has placed a greater burden on the city and some towns while taking it off of the county's wealthier communities.
And Monroe County's flat tax rate has also cost the community. Brooks has resisted calls to set aside more county funding for child day care subsidies, and her 2015 budget actually reduced the county's contribution to the program. (When she introduced the budget, Brooks said that year after year, the county has contributed more to the program than the state requires; now, she said, the state needs to step up.)
After the speech, Legislature Democratic Minority Leader Carrie Andrews charged that Brooks isn't leaving the county on sound financial footing. She noted that the county has elected to defer pension payments which, with interest, will amount to $60 million that taxpayers will have to repay down the line. (To be fair, other local governments, including the City of Rochester, have also deferred pension contributions.)
Brooks also defended the work of the Monroe County Industrial Development Agency. COMIDA, she said, has been "an acronym praised and vilified by area naysayers and in our local media, where failure is showcased and success ignored."
Since 2004, she said, the agency has assisted 1,500 growing, relocating, or new companies with incentives to the tune of $245 million. That investment has generated a $963 million return, she said, and has generated or retained 110,000 jobs. And business executives tell her that the incentives matter because they level the playing field "in our highly taxed and over-regulated state," she said.
But Brooks' defense misstates the issue. The agency makes decisions that ultimately affect taxpayers and can have a profound effect -- good and bad -- on other local businesses. Every government dollar invested in a business is a dollar not invested in libraries, education, road repairs, social services, or parks.
There are projects where incentives are good or necessary. Take the recent tax breaks awarded to Three Heads Brewing, which is building a brewery, tasting room, and distribution facility on Atlantic Avenue. The company is locally owned, plans to create around a dozen jobs, and is investing in a property that's been unused for two decades.
COMIDA has also supported expansions at quite a few locally owned manufacturing firms -- companies that provide decent jobs to area residents and whose owners often spend their profits locally.
But COMIDA routinely awards incentives for luxury housing projects, retail development, and other market-driven businesses. It granted substantial property and sales tax incentives to the College Town development on Mt. Hope Avenue, for example, which has filled up mostly with chain restaurants and retail. These businesses compete with locally owned stores and restaurants, and their profits go to their out-of-town corporate parents.
Her biggest legacy, though, will be her top priority, which has been the basis of many of her policies: Even before she took office as county executive, she promised not to raise the tax rate.
County and local officials have to do their jobs in increasingly difficult environments. Brooks has pointed out over and over again that the state dictates much of what the county's budget gets spent on, and that few areas are under its discretion. Residents often want governments to do far more than they're willing to pay for; elected officials know that if they increase taxes by too much, they'll pay the price.
For the past 11-plus years, Brooks kept that reality top-of-mind as she's done her job and, for better or for worse, that fact will shape her legacy.