Four years ago, we urged MonroeCounty voters to reject Jack Doyle's bid for re-election as county executive. Among our reasons: the threats and bullying that he and other Republican Party leaders used to get their way, and the close correlation between the awarding of county contracts and donations to Doyle and the Republican Party.
If Democrats had fielded a strong candidate that year, it's likely that Doyle would have been defeated. Few people were willing to speak out publicly against him, but the hostility toward Doyle was palpable. It didn't go away after the election, and was likely the reason his wife lost her bid for State Supreme Court.
Doyle, or Republican leaders, finally got the message, and earlier this year, Doyle announced that he would not seek re-election. Running in his place is County Clerk Maggie Brooks, who says she'll be able to reduce the hostility between City Hall and the CountyOfficeBuilding --- and who insists that she will bring "real leadership, real vision, realchange."
Brooks has more depth, and is more thoughtful, than many of her critics have given her credit for, and during her campaign she has tried to distance herself from Doyle. She has criticized some Doyle administration policies. She says she would end the animosity between the county and City Hall. And she has a catchy campaign chant: "Jack is Jack. That's the past. I'm the future."
But the fact is, Doyle hasn't been the only problem. Republican Party chair Steve Minarik has built a tough, effective fundraising machine, and the interests of that machine often seem to take precedence over the interests of the public. If Brooks is elected, Minarik, CountyLegislature leaders, and the party's smooth, aggressive treasurer Bill Nojay will still be with us. And there's plenty of indication that they, not she, will be in charge.
The latest outrage: the orchestration of the county's 2004 budget, submitted in sketchy form --- late --- last week. Doyle has promised a more complete budget this week. When he releases it, the public will find out what services he's cutting. But the Republican leadership of the CountyLegislature has postponed public hearings on the budget until after the election. That will substantially mute the public discussion. And, of course, it will benefit Brooks' candidacy.
Even if the Minarik machine didn't call the shots, however, there would be serious problems with a Brooks administration. Most important, while Brooks says she represents change, she stands solidly with Doyle on the most critical challenge facing MonroeCounty today: county finances.
Years of Doyle fiscal policies have put the county on the edge of fiscal disaster. They are causing pain to the poorest residents of the county. They are eroding the institutions that have made Rochester a nationally known cultural center. We are no less concerned about the bullying and contracts than we were four years ago. Now, however, there is an even greater concern: the threat to the community's future as a financially viable, economically healthy, good place to live. That threat is real. It is as serious as it is because of the policies of the Doyle administration.
And Maggie Brooks insists that she will continue those policies.
MonroeCounty is rapidly sliding downhill. The loss of jobs and young adults is proof. The loss of open space, the stagnant population, the empty stores in Irondequoit Mall: All are proof. The status quo will continue that slide. Three reports by local business leaders say so. And Brooks represents the status quo.
Bill Johnson is a proven leader who has run a fiscally stable government under difficult conditions. He is a person of accomplishment. And he is a person of courage and vision.
As Jack Doyle has pointed out, the county's expenses have been rising sharply, and much of that increase has been in "unfunded mandates": costs that the state orders the county to pay. For the foreseeable future, those costs are expected to continue to go up.
Doyle has been solving his immediate problems with one-time infusions of cash: selling county assets like the Civic Center Garage and the Mill Seat Landfill and using money from the county's tobacco settlement.
Brooks insists that the county can continue to keep the tax levy --- the amount the county collects in taxes --- flat. She, like Jack Doyle, is highly selective in her concern about increasing taxes. MonroeCounty has had the highest sales-tax rate in the state, and Doyle has just proposed raising it again.
Incredibly, Brooks also insists that she'll be able to balance the budget without cutting services --- and without borrowing. Either Brooks is dangerously naïve or she is not telling the truth. Both spell trouble for MonroeCounty residents.
Doyle's fiscal policies have brought criticism from local business leaders. The administration has also been criticized by national bond-rating companies for the county's continuing budget problems, for depleting its reserve funds, and for balancing the budget by selling assets. Such criticisms are not just idle words; when those companies downgrade the county's bond rating, the county has to pay more to borrow money.
Brooks insists that "Wall Street" is "irresponsible" for wanting the county to have reserve funds. "When we have a surplus," she said in her interview with City, "critics start advocating that we spend it." But having reserve funds is a good government practice, a hedge against unforeseen expenses and emergencies.
Brooks, like many other Republicans, says that we can reduce county government costs by "streamlining" government operations. That's simply ludicrous. Republicans have been in charge of MonroeCounty government for more than a decade. To say that efficiencies can balance the budget is to say that the Republicans have been operating an inefficient government, full of fat, for years. That they spent down the county's reserves, and left the fat in. That they're selling off assets and borrowing money but haven't been diligent enough to institute efficiencies. That they've watched the county's credit rating slide, reached a point where they had to consider closing county parks, and did nothing.
Even Jack Doyle has apparently rejected that stand now. Doyle's press release accompanying his 2004 budget last week contained this significant statement: "We have exhausted our ability to cut and find efficiencies in non-mandated services."
Brooks says that keeping tax receipts flat will boost the economy. But it has not worked for the Doyle administration. It has not brought new industry here. It has not stopped the Kodak layoffs or replaced the Kodak losses. Instead, it has put the county in precarious financial shape and eroded the quality of life.
During his campaign, Johnson has told the truth: There are tough times ahead. When all the assets are sold and all the tobacco money is gone, the county will still face rising costs. Unless it raises property taxes or hikes the sales tax again, the county will have to cut services. Those services will include more than the programs that help the county's neediest residents --- the targets of Doyle's mean-spirited proposal last week. They will include funding for parks, for road maintenance, for arts organizations, for boosting economic development.
In that case, this will be a far different county from the one we've lived in. And if Brooks is elected and keeps her word, the only accomplishment she will be able to claim is that she, like Jack Doyle, kept property taxes flat.
Both Brooks and Johnson emphasize the importance of boosting economic development in MonroeCounty and in the region. But Johnson understands --- far more than Brooks --- the importance of a regional approach. And Johnson understands --- far more than Brooks --- the damage the Doyle administration has done.
Johnson notes, for example, that towns, villages, and the city currently compete with one another for economic development. All are desperate for a stronger property-tax base, so they offer tax breaks --- literally indulge in a bidding war --- to attract new businesses. Many times, those are businesses simply moving from one part of the county to another. That does nothing to increase economic development in the county, and it increases the tax burden on the individual municipalities.
Johnson notes, too, that while there's a growing awareness of the need for service consolidation, the Doyle administration recently set up yet another economic-development agency, the Monroe County Economic Development Corporation.
Johnson has talked for years about the need for a regional economic-development effort. He says that as county executive, he would press for a non-competitive agreement among towns, villages, and the city, to stop the internecine warfare taking place.
Brooks, on the other hand, offers little more than vague proposals, and she promises little more than a continuation of the status quo. She emphasizes the importance of individual governments and business interests "working together" to "coordinate our economic development message." She wants local municipalities to "streamline zoning and planning approvals." She says we must "diversify" our economic-development efforts and focus more on "emerging technologies." That's all to the good. But she does not offer any proposals that would move this county, and this region, forward.
For years, Jack Doyle has been obsessed with the issue of "metro government." Brooks has latched onto that obsession. Like Doyle, Brooks knows very well that Bill Johnson has absolutely no power to bring about metropolitan government, or any kind of consolidation of local government or school districts.
Even if Johnson proposed some form of consolidation, it would have to be approved by the Republican-dominatedCounty Legislature. Then it would have to be approved by the state legislature. And then it would come back home, to be voted on by MonroeCounty residents. And if the majority of voters in a single affected municipality --- a single village or town, for instance --- objected to the consolidation, it would fail. Simply put, there will be no government consolidation in MonroeCounty --- ever --- unless MonroeCounty voters want it.
And yet, like Doyle, Brooks repeatedly works the "threat" of consolidation into her campaign message. There can be only one reason for this tactic: It takes the focus off of the county's fiscal condition. That is the real issue in this campaign. And Brooks and the Republican Party leaders don't want to talk about it.
There is, of course, a need for a serious discussion of consolidation. In MonroeCounty, there are multiple layers of government: the county, the city, 19 towns, 10 villages, 18 school districts. Upstate New York, the Brookings Institution reported earlier this week, has twice as much government per person as Massachusetts, New Jersey, or Connecticut. One result is a duplication of services that could be provided less expensively and more efficiently. And, Brookings noted, the fragmentation of local governments discourages cooperative planning and encourages hostility between the city, suburbs, and rural areas.
Johnson, like several reports by business leaders, hassaid that the cost of government in this region is contributing to our financial problems, and that we should find ways to reduce that cost. As Johnson has noted, there are numerous ways to consolidate. The point is, we cannot continue to nibble around the edges, unless we are willing to pay for the duplication. We cannot complain about high taxes and insist on keeping the amount of government that is driving those taxes up.
A stand-out example: In this one county there are 39 different fire agencies. Thirty-nine. Some of them use paid firefighters. Some use volunteers. But all of them have equipment. Some have substantial firehouses. Some handle very few fires a year. And some are ridiculously close to one another.
Consolidating some of those agencies wouldn't be popular. But it would save money. And it wouldn't reduce the quality of service or the public's protection.
Jack Doyle is leaving the community with an important county agency, the Department of Social Services, in chaos. The root of that problem is Doyle's reorganization of the department. In the long term, reorganization may have been needed. And properly funded, it might result in better, more efficient service to the county's needy. And certainly, if reorganization can provide quality service and save money, that's a good thing.
But that requires time. It requires planning and experience. It requires money. In its desperation to save money quickly, the Doyle administration slashed the staff and lost many experienced workers and administrators, at a time when caseloads were increasing. The result is a highly stressed, poorly trained, overworked staff. Case files are being lost. Qualified recipients are having benefits cut off. MonroeCounty residents who need to talk with caseworkers can't get through on the telephone. Clients with appointments are kept waiting for hours.
Also hurt: day-care providers, including low-income women, who are receiving county reimbursement checks late --- or are told several months after the fact that some of the children they've been caring for have been disqualified --- and that there'll be no county payment coming.
This is a system that is inhumane, and that will become costly as the county is forced to reinstate qualified recipients who are dropped erroneously.
It is, of course, Maggie Brooks, not Jack Doyle, who is running for county executive. And in a recent City interview, Brooks said there've been problems with the way Doyle has gone about the DSS reform. It was too top-down, she said, too many top administrators were lost, and the county did not make an essential investment in technology.
But here again, Brooks promises change but offers none. She wants to distance herself from the Doyle administration. But she embraces Doyle's fiscal philosophy and, perhaps innocently, Doyle's deceit. She insists that although the DSS caseload is increasing, the county will realize the savings Doyle has projected. And she says the county will be able to afford to invest in essential technology, without raising taxes.
Little attention has been paid during the campaign to issues of political philosophy, but those issues are important at the local level as well as the national. Brooks is a very conservative Republican.
She says she is "very much in favor of the concept" of providing tax dollars to religious service providers. She is opposed to abortion; Johnson is pro-choice. While that issue may not seem relevant to a county race, it is. Among the agencies that lost county funding last year was Planned Parenthood. And several years ago, conservative county legislators lobbied (unsuccessfully) to ban county funding for agencies --- even hospitals --- that perform late-term abortions or provide RU486, the so-called "abortion pill."
Brooks tends to talk about complicated issues in simple, knee-jerk (and often divisive, anti-poor) terms. She says she regrets that the county can't provide more money for day care and that she wants to maintain the current level of funding. But she quickly falls into conservative stereotyping, insisting that there are "a lot of people" who are getting public day-care funds "for taking care of a grandchild."
Johnson discusses the complexities of such issues as Medicaid costs, noting that Medicaid finances nursing-home care for the elderly and health care for low-income people who can't afford insurance. Brooks, on the other hand, talks about the need to reduce "welfare fraud."
Brooks has repeatedly blamed Johnson for not doing more to reduce the city's crime rate. Johnson has noted the link between crime and drug sales and drug usage. Limited access to drug-treatment programs, he says, prevents many people from fighting their addition, and they often to turn to crime to get money to buy drugs.
During the WXXI-TV debate between Brooks and Johnson last week, Johnson noted that the county has reduced funding both for drug treatment and for probation services. But Brooks brushed off that issue, insisting that voters "don't want to hear about the collateral issues."
Bill Johnson's career is one of accomplishment and leadership. The city's solid credit rating is in strong contrast to that of the county. Johnson is respected nationally as a dynamic, creative mayor. And Brooks' contention that he has accomplished little suggests that she has little understanding of such issues as poverty and crime. It also suggests that she never looks around her when she drives into the city to work --- and that she seldom ventures into the city on weekends or at night.
Rochester, like many cities, is a complex organism. It houses and educates nearly all of the county's poor, and so it continues to wrestle with problems of crime and low student achievement. But its community-development efforts --- from street and sidewalk maintenance to low-income housing --- have been applauded nationally.
Rochester struggles to maintain its property-tax base, eroded by suburban sprawl. Thirty percent of city property is tax-exempt, and much of that property is owned by government and institutions that serve the entire region: StrongHospital, the University of Rochester, state and federal offices, major metropolitan churches, theaters, and museums. What those properties do not pay in taxes, other city property owners must make up.
It is an enormous challenge to provide essential services under such conditions, and to attract new business and housing development. And yet the City of Rochester, under Bill Johnson and his predecessor Tom Ryan, has done just that.
And the city, unlike the county under Jack Doyle, has insisted on involving residents in planning. While the Doyle administration has tried to force a Thruway exit and a soccer complex on the residents of Chili, a holiday light show on the residents of Mendon, a zoo expansion on SenecaPark, Johnson has engaged thousands of residents and business representatives in planning the future of their neighborhoods and their city.
Downtown housing development continues, in Grove Place, where townhouses are snapped up as quickly as they're built; in the Cascade District, where high-end loft apartments and high-tech offices are thriving and more are being developed; in the East End, where apartments and lofts continue to be built. Among the newest developments: Sagamore on East, a condominium project where prices range from $350,000 to $600,000, and the Michaels Stern Building, loft apartments and retail in a significant downtown structure. New condos are under way in the Geva neighborhood. Ground has been broken for a major housing development along the river in Corn Hill.
Geva draws record crowds. The StrongMuseum has expanded. The East End and Alexander Street draw traffic-jam crowds at night. New restaurants continue to open downtown. Thousands of young adults turn out for the East End Festivals. The Little Theatre continues to mock the myth that movie theaters can not operate in downtown areas.
The Rochester MusicFest and the Greater Rochester International Jazz Festival enliven the summer. Crowds pack the aisles at the Rochester Public Market.
This is not a city on the ropes. It is a city whose current and previous administrations have adhered to prudent tax policies and careful budgeting. It is a city that through private initiative as well as public investment is a lively, attractive place to live and work.
Saving the county
Jack Doyle's gift to the Greater Rochester region is a county in serious trouble. Without a dramatic change in leadership, MonroeCounty residents will find themselves with deteriorating parks and roads, with few arts institutions, with under-funded police and fire services. That kind of county is not in a position to attract new development --- or keep the businesses it has.
To reverse the course Doyle has put us on will require courage, intelligence, leadership, and bold action --- by the county executive, the county legislature, and the leaders of the city, towns, and villages. Bill Johnson has those qualities. While Maggie Brooks may have them too, we've seen little evidence of it in the campaign. Instead, she has given every indication that on the issues that matter most, she will continue the Doyle-Minarik policies.
The November 4 election is one of the most important in MonroeCounty history. The Brooks campaign has tried to mask the serious challenges facing the community with platitudes and metro-government scare tactics.
Bill Johnson understands the challenges facing the community. He knows that continuing to follow the Doyle policies will bring great harm to the community. He knows that restoring the county's health and attracting new development will not be easy and will not be painless. But with co-operation from Republican legislators and town supervisors, we believe he will be able to bring this disparate community together.