ALBANY – With an increasing number of local governments under financial duress, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing the creation of a state panel of experts to go into communities with ideas and possibly state cash to push an array of solutions stretching from shared public services to ways to trim workforce levels.
The panels, though, would not be imposed on any locality, as seen in the past in Erie County and Buffalo with Albany-created financial control boards that possessed vast powers over their budgets and labor contracts.
The new panels would offer ideas that the localities may or may not adopt; the only binding component would be if a municipality gets state money to enact a specific cost-saving idea.
The financial restructuring boards, as Cuomo dubbed them, would not be available to any of the state’s 700 school districts, which get the most state aid of all units of local governments and which are also facing their own fiscal problems within cities, towns and villages.
The idea was supported by the New York State Association of Counties and the New York Conference of Mayors, as well as police and fire union representatives.
“It’s in everyone’s interest to see the local governments doing well,” Cuomo said.
The governor said the program would be primarily aimed toward upstate, where most of the distressed governments are located.
One chart supplied by the Governor’s Office sought to tell the story: Upstate’s population declined by 1.4 percent from 2000 to 2010, while the cost of all local government services in the region rose by 47 percent.
“That is the disconnect,” Cuomo said of structural imbalances that localities are facing with rising costs and declining tax bases.
Exactly how a local government would become eligible for the new assistance has not yet been established.
“This is a viable alternative to a control board,” said Jamestown Mayor Samuel Teresi, a former president of the statewide mayors group. He said Jamestown would be among the first in line to apply for help from the state panels.
Local officials attending the Cuomo event said smaller local governments in a region that doesn’t participate still could be helped if, for example, a county government is shown new ways to save money. Cuomo said localities that participate could tap into an $80 million state fund created to help with local government-consolidation efforts.
The idea was uninspiring to one upstate business group, which has been advocating a number of major statutory changes, such as to collective-bargaining laws and contracts involving public construction projects, to help address some of the major cost drivers that are creating fiscal crisises for some local governments.
“Our point all along is if they create something, it should be with teeth and not a paper tiger. We’re waiting to see if this task force is going to have any teeth to apply real changes,” said Brian Sampson, executive director of Unshackle Upstate.
The board would be composed of representatives of the governor’s administration, the private sector and legal and financial experts from the offices of the attorney general and state comptroller.
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and state legislators did not attend Tuesday’s hastily called event. Cuomo said he will be proposing legislation on the idea later this week.
Under the proposal, the governor’s budget director would decide on the eligibility criteria for localities to receive the help.