By ASHLEY HELMS
Saving money and preparing for unfunded mandates handed down by New York State has been what some municipal governments consider to be the most severe financial strain over the past several years, but community leaders have attempted to create discourse in order to encourage residents to educate themselves as much as possible on the effects of the mandates and perhaps lobby for change.
The Larchmont-Mamaroneck League of Women Voters held a forum on Nov. 7 at the Hommocks Middle School in Larchmont to inform attendees about the pressures of paying for unfunded mandates in the era of the state-imposed tax levy cap, which, as of this municipal budgetary year, will be lowered from 2 percent to 1.66 percent.
Under the state tax cap, local municipalities’ tax levy increases are capped annually. A formula system is used to determine how it translates to each municipality. If it feels necessary, a governing municipal board can vote to override the 2 percent tax levy cap with a 60 percent majority.
The forum’s featured speakers included Democratic Sen. George Latimer and Assemblyman Steve Otis along with former Mamaroneck Town Supervisor Valerie O’Keefe, a Republican. And tackling issues facing school districts was Lisa Davis, the executive director of the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association.
Unfunded mandates are actions that local municipalities are required to complete without any extra funding from the state. They include increased state retirement system contributions for government employees—commonly viewed as the most financially burdensome mandate—Medicaid and the controversial Common Core Learning Standards, which were first created by New York State Education Commissioner John King in 2010 and implemented in the 2012-2013 school year.
O’Keefe said that unfunded mandates became a hot-button issue after the tax levy cap legislation was imposed by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2010. The tax levy cap formula does not allow exemptions for the cost of unfunded mandates, posing a burden for municipalities and schools that scramble to pay for the mandates while not raising the tax levy more than 2 percent. O’Keefe said the tax levy cap formula should allow for these exemptions.
“Budgets should be about services that benefit the community and not get transferred out,” she said.
Otis examined what communities can do to make New York State more livable financially, including lobbying lawmakers in Albany to cap the state retirement contributions. New York is the only state where a large chunk of Medicaid expenses are paid through property tax, Otis said. Lobbying lawmakers in Albany to cap state retirement contributions may also be an important step to bringing down taxes and costs because governing boards will then have more money available in their budgets.
“We need to go after the big ticket pieces so we will feel relief,” Otis said.
Though she doesn’t work specifically in Mamaroneck schools, Davis was knowledgeable of the effects that unfunded mandates have had on those schools as well as other public schools around the county. Learning institutions have been deteriorating because of the expensive requirements, Davis said, and it may, unfortunately, take witnessing the disappearance of every art, music or sports program for residents to push for change. She encouraged the forum attendees to speak out and create grass roots organizations to request relief from Albany and allow schools to thrive again.
“This is not what a lot of people signed up for when they moved to a community like Mamaroneck,” Davis said.
Opening statements by the panelists were followed by a question-and-answer session with audience members.
Village of Mamaroneck resident Carol Akin asked if communities would be able to impose property taxes on residents based on their income because school districts are funded mostly by property taxes. It’s a hard sell, she said, but, to her, it’s the only feasible way to bring down taxes and keep it fair for everyone.
“Some people are on fixed income, some are retired and then there are people who have executive level jobs,” Akin said.