Column: No state legislation is good state legislation

Mayor-MarvinDuring the recently ended New York State legislative term, more than 16,000 bills were proposed in just two years. Thankfully, a vast majority of them died in committee. As Mark Twain said, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.”

No major reforms were undertaken and very little legislation directly impacts the village.

The binding arbitration law that allows firefighters and police to go to outside arbitors when an impasse is reached in negotiations was tweaked but not in the village’s favor. It now uses “ability to pay” as the main driver of pay raises, so any community who was frugal and amassed a fund balance for a rainy day will be penalized. In an ironic twist, arbitrators’ awards are not subject to the 2 percent tax cap, though the municipality paying the raise is so bound.

A bill currently sitting on the governor’s desk, though seemingly innocuous, would set a new and unusual precedent. The proposed law would require local governments to provide mandatory training to local dog control officers. The local government would then be given the authority to solicit and accept funds from any public or private sector source to cover the cost of such training. This would be the first time that fundraising was allowed for a mandatory municipal purpose.

As a member of the Legislative Priorities Committee of the New York Conference of Mayors Association, I recently met with approximately 25 of my colleagues to prioritize an agenda for advocacy for the upcoming 2014 legislative session. Priority one is an increase in revenue sharing funds from the state, which have decreased by over 7 percent just since 2009. For decades, the original fairly thought out revenue sharing formula, intended to redistribute state tax revenues, has been disregarded, making the revenue stream inconsistent, unfair and unpredictable.

Mayors across the state support an increase in local funding based on a formula that takes into account the types and level of services a community must provide as well as the amount of tax exempt properties within local boundaries.

Continuing on the tax exempt subject, according to the New York State Comptroller’s office, $680 billion in market value of real property in New York State—27 percent—is exempt from municipal taxes, which equates to approximately $17 billion yearly in foregone property tax revenue. However, the tax-exempt entities need essential municipal services. A proposal that would permit municipalities to impose charges just to defray the cost of local services including police and fire protection, street maintenance and lighting, seems only equitable.

The State of Massachusetts, in a unique experiment, called upon all their non-profits to voluntarily contribute commensurate with the services they received and many have responded in kind. Even if municipalities recoup only a portion of the expenses they incur serving tax-exempt organizations, it would be a step forward.

As always, the elephant in the room is the New York State Pension System. Conservative estimates say that state and local employer contributions will more than double by 2016, adding nearly $4 billion to annual taxpayer costs, leading logically to reduced services in tandem with property tax increases.

The current legislators, I would argue, are the true enemies of the loyal municipal worker as they ignore reforms to an unsustainable pension system. The end result could very well be a result like Detroit, where hardworking people are now getting 16 cents on the dollar in retirement.

At the very least, the 3 percent employee contribution that was eliminated in 2000 should be reinstated. It would still give municipal workers a 97 percent versus 3 percent contribution rate, unheard of in any other existing industry.

My fellow local lawmakers also want to exempt costs to repair aging infrastructures from the current 2 percent property cap. Though school districts are exempt, despite one of the most aging infrastructures in the country, New York State communities are discouraged from doing any capital repairs as their costs are not exempt from the state tax cap.

Your village trustees, in an expression of the value of local control, routinely override the governor’s tax cap legislation on principle, though we rarely exceed the cap. We prefer to be accountable in local elections if we do not exert the fiscal controls village residents expect.

My colleagues and I also support legislation to constitutionally prohibit laws or regulations that would impose a direct or indirect fiscal burden on local governments unless a parallel appropriation is made sufficient to hold local governments harmless.

In addition, we will advocate that all current unfunded mandates, such as the MTA tax, be required to sunset in two years unless it could be shown they serve an essential purpose and a state funding source can be found to offset the cost to local governments.

Another very specific unfunded mandate is the requirement of local governments to publish official notices in local newspapers. However, with the decline in newspaper circulation and the proliferation of Internet access, state law should be amended to allow local governments to leverage the power of the Internet to reach interested parties in a more timely, efficient and cost effective manner.

No longer can local government just advocate for positive change or for what they might need, we now have to play defense and constantly monitor the fiscal and regulatory effects of every potential bill.

As one of my colleagues said, “If local governments are not at the table, we may find ourselves on the menu.”