Albany is now debating a property-tax cap, an idea understandably popular with hard-pressed taxpayers. But those of us who work in local government see the vital need as mandate relief -- because it's the spending that the state government mandates that's behind New York's heavy property taxes.
The state's mandates on local governments are far too numerous to detail here. Let's start with the mother of all mandates -- Medicaid.
Nearly every dime Erie County collects in non-school-tax property taxes goes directly to the state for Medicaid services. Last year, the county's local share of Medicaid was some $201 million -- against a property-tax levy of $211 million.
And county governments have absolutely zero say in how the program is administered or what Medicaid services are offered. State lawmakers force us to offer but one "optional" (per federal rules) Medicaid service; they also set eligibility far, far above the minimum.
But they make us split the costs with Albany -- and New York is one of only a handful of states that pass Medicaid bills down to local governments.
Most counties in the Empire State will be stuck on the edge of a fiscal cliff as long as the state refuses to reform its unsustainably generous Medicaid program. Erie County's Medicaid tab will grow by $6 million, or 3 percent, this year and every year going forward.
That is why I continue to call on the Legislature to pass "opt-out" legislation allowing localities to "opt out" of the Medicaid services not mandated by the feds.
Some of the worst other mandates are linked to the public-sector workforce. The state's pension system -- created by decades of smoke-and-mirror politics in Albany -- is a disaster for taxpayers. Time after time, the state guarantees employees a given benefit and then leaves local governments holding the bag.
The hit can be swift and hard. The state has notified Erie County to expect to have to pay 40 percent more into the pension fund this year -- for a total contribution of more than 16 percent of our payroll.
Instead of pretending that this growth is sustainable, state leaders need to create a defined-contribution pension tier (like private-sector 401ks) and increase the retirement age to 65.
Another huge problem is the Taylor Law and its various amendments. How can we slash state aid to local school districts and not also give them the tools to control their labor costs? Albany needs to repeal Taylor to give districts the leverage they need to negotiate fair contracts, instead of being forced to give pay hikes without a single concession from the unions.
In Erie County, our business approach to government is driving efficiencies and cost-saving initiatives every day. That's the only thing that allows us to absorb the continued cost-shifting and unfunded mandates out of Albany without raising county property taxes. It's a sad day in this state when local governments have to work overtime to reduce costs just to cover Albany's bills.
Chris Collins is the Erie County executive.