Last Updated: 4:41 AM, March 3, 2011
Posted: 9:58 PM, March 2, 2011
To say the 87-page report dropped late Tuesday by the New York State Mandate Relief Redesign Team was a disappointment would be like saying this year's Oscars were a little boring.
The fluff-filled report represents a major missed opportunity for real reform. The governor should reject this document, and demand the team produce substantial reforms -- not "redesigns" -- that will save our taxpayers now.
Local governments are crushed under the weight of state mandates and regulations. While I have frozen Suffolk County general-fund taxes for seven straight years, it has become increasingly challenging to control other costs so that we can absorb mandated cost increases without raising taxes through the roof.
In Suffolk, our state-mandated pension-system payments have increased 1,000 percent over the last nine years. That's not a typo -- one thousand percent.
Our county police officers each cost us close to $200,000 a year in salary, benefits and pension payments because of mandatory arbitration. That is also not a typo -- two hundred grand per cop.
Further strain is put on us every year because the state law known as the Triborough Amendment obliges us to keep giving "step" salary increases and other generous benefits even when a labor contract has expired.
But the report from the redesign team was tepid on the first item, and silent on the second and third -- essentially protecting the status quo.
The status quo is comfortable for everyone but the taxpayers. The status quo doesn't require making a difficult decision, casting a controversial vote or upsetting a special interest.
Unfortunately, the status quo is unsustainable -- it's really the Un sustainable Quo.
Mandate relief has been talked about for 20 years. At this stage, recommendations should have gone far beyond vague niceties such as "no more unfunded mandates" and "independent cost analysis." Serious ideas are out there -- but where is the intestinal fortitude to take on the Unsustainable Quo?
On pension reform, for example, the report recommends eliminating overtime in calculating final salary for future employees. Good -- but there's no reason why this can't be applied now to every present employee. Some will argue that can't be done; but others say it can. And it should.
Yes, it would take an extraordinary effort in Albany to change this Unsustainable Quo, but we are in extraordinary times. Just look at what is happening in statehouses around the country.
Public pensions that offer a guaranteed rate of return -- guaranteed at taxpayers' expense, that is -- are another Unsustainable Quo. As I have long advocated, the state should establish defined-contribution plans, similar to the 401(k)-type plan used by many public universities and the entire private sector. This was the time for the "redesign team" to push for this reform -- but it passed.
On mandatory arbitration, we only need to emulate the bold move taken by Gov. Chris Christie and cap increases awarded in arbitration at 2 percent. If the state is serious about a 2 percent property-tax cap, it should give this cost-controlling tool to municipalities.
Frankly, I wouldn't be averse to eliminating mandatory arbitration altogether. Our experience here on Long Island is that for decades arbitrators have sided heavily with unions and ignored municipalities' concerns about controlling taxes and spending.
I'm not talking about abolishing collective bargaining. In fact, we managers would welcome the ability to bargain in good faith for givebacks, rather than putting the process in the hands of out-of-touch arbitrators.
As I and others (such as the New York Conference of Mayors) have said, real mandate relief and tax controls can't be achieved if municipalities are restricted by the Triborough Amendment or the Taylor Law, which dictate public-sector labor rules. I have called for a repeal of the Triborough Amendment and NYCOM has recommended a change in the Taylor Law to allow a wage freeze in fiscal emergencies.
Yet the redesign team is eerily silent in the area of labor law.
Is "redesign" merely a new coat of paint on old walls? The governor needs to instruct his team to reform -- to tear down these walls that protect the Unsustainable Quo and build a solid foundation to support the taxpayer.
Steve Levy is the Suffolk County executive.