The County Executive’s Corner: Mandate Madness

By Rockland County Executive Ed Day

Legionnaires’ disease weighed heavily on the minds of New Yorkers this summer. An outbreak in the South Bronx claimed 12 lives and sickened more than 120 people. Here in Rockland County, three people were felled by the potentially deadly respiratory illness.

In response to the Bronx outbreak, the New York City Council passed a measure to require the inspection of all cooling towers for the legionella bacteria. The public health scare also spurred a host of legislative and regulatory efforts intended to prevent similar outbreaks outside the city. On August 17th, Governor Cuomo announced statewide regulations that require building owners to register their cooling towers and test them every 90 days. The New York law levies civil and criminal penalties on those who fail to comply.

The new state regulations make certain that building owners live up to their responsibilities, helping to prevent future outbreaks. What is not certain is how the County of Rockland will fund the new effort.  As directed by the state, our Health Department must build a cooling tower database, keep track of inspections and punish the owners who don’t follow the rules. These added responsibilities – hastily heaped on our cash-strapped county – will cost us tens of thousands of dollars we can’t spare. This is a prime of example of New York’s notorious unfunded state mandates.

Albany has developed a bad habit of approving programs both the governor and state Legislature think are good ideas, but that neither is willing to pay for. Instead, their costs get passed on as unfunded mandates to local governments, which must pay for them, often at the expense of other, more crucial services like police, housing and education.

Nine state mandates alone currently consume over 90% of Rockland County’s tax levy and the situation is expected to grow even worse next year.  Now, more than ever, our taxpayers cannot afford to pay for the hundreds of millions of dollars in costs imposed by the state.

Usefulness is no excuse to pass the buck. A law or program worth passing is worth paying for. An evasion of that responsibility by forcing lower governments to pay for it only creates new problems for counties – and, the local taxpayers the program is intended to help.

As my administration struggles to finalize our proposed 2016 budget, we are again finding it extremely difficult to stay under the state’s new 0.73 percent property-tax cap with the mandates that we have in place.  It is unrealistic to expect us to hold down costs, while the state continues to pile on the programs and policies that we must adhere to… and, pay for!  Since 2009, the state has hit us with an annualized mandate increase of an unbelievable 10-percent, while steadily reducing our ability to spend less.

While the property tax cap was relatively easy to install in 2011, passing unfunded mandate relief takes fortitude and hard decisions.  So far, it appears our governor and state lawmakers would rather take the easy way out.

It’s frustrating.  The state continues to load up local governments with additional responsibilities and costs, while simultaneously lowering the tax cap – and, our ability to generate revenue. If the situation were reversed, would Albany manage to stay within a minuscule tax cap? I don’t think so.

New York State behaves badly enough when it spends beyond its means to provide programs it deems necessary. It behaves worse when it takes the glory and passes the cost on to others.

If Albany doesn’t deliver real mandate relief soon, there won’t be any money left to take care of local needs. We must not sacrifice the things we hold dear to serve the master.

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