ALBANY – Local government leaders, led by the mayors of Rochester and Syracuse, warned state lawmakers Monday that upstate cities are at a crisis state.
In some cases, they said they risk insolvency if Albany does not get serious about addressing eroding local property tax bases and higher state-imposed costs, such as employee pensions.
The most anticipated comments during open legislative hearings on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2013 budget proposal came from Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who did not back down in her worries that Cuomo’s pension-borrowing idea for localities might merely punt hard fiscal decisions down the road instead of addressing the root causes of the problems facing cities.
The mayor, who is Cuomo’s handpicked co-chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said she is concerned the governor’s plan “may be enticing in the short term but shackles our future’’ with unaffordable balloon pension payments in the years ahead.
The mayors were not joined by Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who had to turn around on the Thruway en route to Albany during a heavy snowstorm.
The mayors go to Albany every year for the first budget hearing to plead for more money. This year, a growing sense of urgency was heard.
“Yonkers is a distressed city,’’ said that city’s mayor, Mike Spano.
“If we continue on this path, the cities will surely become culturally and socially bankrupt on their way to financial insolvency,’’ added Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards.
It was Miner’s criticism of a key Cuomo solution for localities – getting up-front money in pension savings by pushing off current liabilities into the future – that kept many lawmakers in the hearing room.
Miner said it was time to “create solutions rather than simply defer problems to our successors.’’ The mayor said she felt a responsibility to future Syracuse mayors and taxpayers over a plan that could have “long-term detrimental results.’’ She urged a study, including an independent actuarial report, of the Cuomo plan.
“I fear that opting into this program could be a hasty decision for cities to fix an immediate cash-flow need,’’ Miner said, adding that the $150 billion state and local government employee retirement system “could be seriously at risk’’ if localities in the future were unable to meet the plan’s possible balloon payments.
Richards said upstate localities’ reliance on property taxes to fund a major portion of expenses no longer works in communities with declining populations and property tax bases. Pointing out that Kodak’s property tax tab in Rochester has declined from $13 million annually to just $3 million in 10 years, he said once-reliable major property taxpayers are disappearing across upstate. Richards urged lawmakers to treat cities as they have urban school districts by having the state increase aid to cities.
Richards disagreed with Miner, saying he welcomed the immediate relief Cuomo’s pension plan would bring.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he generally believes that “postponing down-the-road expenses you have every year is not a good policy.”