In defending his historic proposal to slash state spending on education by $1.5 billion next year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested a number of cost-cutting measures that could be adopted by school districts without cutting jobs, eliminating programs or raising property taxes.
Those proposals include streamlining backroom operations, capping (and lowering) superintendent salaries and sharing services with other districts. The freshman governor has also said that most districts could cover his proposed cuts, which average nearly 3 percent per district, by using reserve funds accumulated over the years.
“The days where government can just throw money at the problem, raise more taxes and throw more money at the problem, are over,” Cuomo told reporters on March 17 during an impromptu four-minute rant. “Find an efficiency, like every other family in this state has had to find an efficiency. Manage the school system. Reduce the waste, reduce the fraud, reduce the abuse.”
School officials on the state and local level have argued with every one of these proposals, claiming that cuts in state aid since 2009 have left them with bare-bones budgets and little choice but to close shortfalls through a combination of layoffs and tax increases.
A report released by State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli last week seems, at first blush, to bolster Cuomo’s argument. According to the comptroller, all but 100 districts across the state—and all but one in the lower Hudson Valley—had enough reserves on hand to cover the cuts, which average 9.3 percent in Westchester, Putnam and Rockland, as of June 2010. As a general rule, the wealthier a district is, the less it relies on state aid.
But the report goes on to warn that while using reserves could serve as a “one-time fix,” the practice is risky and unsustainable.
“If costs increase by even a modest 3 percent, the number of districts with problems would double,” DiNapoli said. “Many schools districts are going to have to tighten their belts another notch next year and beyond.”
Local school officials and education advocates in Albany have generally been averse to the idea of using up their reserves, citing the intent to save up for capital projects and cover skyrocketing pension liabilities.
“Districts routinely try to use reserves to manage the considerable ups and downs in state aid, to minimize the need for disruptive programmatic reductions or local tax increases,” said Robert Lowry, the deputy director of the State Council of Superintendents.
For example, Lowry said, late last year the state trimmed an additional $130 million from school aid to offset a decrease in federal support for Medicaid.
But at least one local official, Rye Schools Superintendent Ed Shine, was already planning on using his district’s surplus to offset cuts before Cuomo made the proposal. Shine has proposed transferring $1.5 million in reserves to cover a $370,000 cut in aid and increasing enrollment in the city’s middle and high schools. But Shine, like DiNapoli, did recognize that spending reserves could only go on for so long.
“It’s not sustainable because when your savings account runs out, that’s something you’ve got to make up for in the future,” he said. “That is a funding cliff that will have to be dealt with; hopefully the economy will turn around and the state will start increasing aid.”
According to the comptroller’s report, the only district in the lower Hudson Valley that could not cover proposed cuts with reserves is the small Pocantico Hills district in Westchester. Superintendent Valencia Douglas was not immediately available for comment.
The Union Free School District of the Tarrytowns, meanwhile, is mulling a proposal that would include spending $900,000 in reserves for the second straight year in order to keep the increase in the local property tax levy under 4 percent.
A look at budget proposals throughout Putnam and Rockland, however, shows that many districts are not planning to use reserves. A number of local superintendents and school board members were unavailable for comment Thursday and Friday.
The Senate and Assembly both have proposed modest increases in state aid in dueling budget proposals forwarded this week. The Senate is seeking to restore about $260 million by rejecting a Cuomo proposal to create competitive grant programs for schools; the Assembly is calling for a tax surcharge on New Yorkers who earn more than $1 million per year in order to restore $200 million in school aid. But Cuomo has indicated that he will not support either proposal.
The budget is set to be passed April 1.
Here’s a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between March 11 and March 18:
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) did not introduce any bills.
Abinanti, whose son is autistic and stepson has cerebral palsy, joined a handful of lawmakers on March 15 to address a recent New York Times article that outlines a shocking pattern of neglect and abuse at state-run homes for the developmentally disabled. According to the Times, most of the allegations have been ignored by state authorities. When cases are reported, the employees accused of abuse often are hired by other homes.
“The system we have in this state makes me very afraid to die,” Abinanti said, asking “what happens when I’m too old to care for my son?”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers have called for resignations and firings, with some legislators renewing a call to create a registry of employees who are fired from group homes.
Assemblyman Robert Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) introduced one bill, which would allow local governments to create “sustainable energy financing programs” that would provide loans and grants to property owners who want to utilize renewable energy technology such as solar panels, wind power, or geothermal systems.
On March 15 the assemblyman blasted the state budget proposals forwarded by Assembly Democrats, which call for a tax surcharge on New Yorkers who earn more than $1 million per year and reject a proposed cap on non-economic medical malpractice damages. Under the Assembly plan, the $700 million raised from the “millionaire’s tax” would be used to restore $200 million in education aid and stave off the closing of dozens of senior centers in New York City.
“The resolution hardly addresses any of the tough decisions that lawmakers were expected to make this year; no unfunded mandate relief, no Medicaid reform and no spending restraint,” Castelli said.
Castelli this week asked the State Department of Transportation to fill a number of huge potholes in northern Westchester. The potholes—particularly in Chappaqua and Millwood—have created a “post-apocalyptic landscape” in the area, Castelli said. The DOT moved swiftly to begin patching up the holes; Castelli urged local residents to contact his office with the location of any potholes.
Castelli on March 19 hosted two town hall meetings, one in Bedford and one in South Salem, along with Congresswoman Nan Hayworth.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) introduced three bills, including a proposal that would establish a symbolic ban on smoking at playgrounds when children are present. The bill bars police officers from ticketing or questioning anyone who violates the ban.
Galef also forwarded a proposal that would allow school districts to opt into regional collective bargaining agreements. The measure, she said, would “result in bargaining equity and would also encourage potential school district consolidation.”
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) introduced one bill, which would prohibit public employers from compensating workers of different sexes inequitably for work of “comparable worth.” Under the proposal, no current employee’s pay could be decreased. The bill has passed the Assembly five times in the last decade, but has never passed the Senate. So-called “equal-pay legislation” already exists in a number of states and on the federal level.
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) introduced four bills, one of which would establish 8-year term limits for state lawmakers and 4-year limits for legislative leaders.
Two other bills would allow counties to opt out of certain state-mandated Medicaid provisions and would allow local governments to use the state’s discounted rate for mailings. The latter bill does not report the estimated cost to the state.
Katz also introduced a local bill, which would allow the town of North Salem to lower speed limits on town roads.
Katz on March 15 called on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to “clean house” at state-run homes for the disabled by filing criminal charges against any employee accused of abusing group home residents. He also called on lawmakers to convene a task force to investigate the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, the state agency that oversees the homes, in response to a March 13 New York Times article that outlines alleged abuses at group homes.
Katz on March 19 held a town hall meeting in Patterson with Congresswoman Nan Hayworth. The freshman assemblyman will hold mobile office hours on March 21 from 4 to 7 p.m. at Southeast Town Hall and on March 24 from 4 to 7 p.m. at Somers Town Hall.
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) introduced one bill, which would require that many health insurance policies provide reimbursements for human leukocyte antigen (HLA) testing, which is used to match organ and tissue donors with recipients. HLAs are a class of proteins that help the body’s immune system identify foreign cells, triggering a response from the immune system.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) did not introduce any bills.
The Assembly on March 15 passed a bill sponsored by Paulin that would require public entities, including state agencies and local governments, to make available records that are set to be discussed at public meetings before the meetings take place. Currently such records are available to the public via the Freedom of Information Law, but often are not released until after they’ve been discussed by officials. The bill has been introduced in the Senate, but has not been brought up for a vote.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) introduced one bill, which would allow the Office of the Medicaid Inspector General (OMIG) to refer fraud cases to local prosecutors. Current law prohibits such referrals by OMIG, the state’s top watchdog for Medicaid fraud. “It is inexplicable,” Zebrowski said in a memo, “that the county district attorney is barred from prosecuting crimes that take place within the county and were investigated by a county agency.”
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) introduced three bills, including a proposal to create a “Cold War veteran’s medal” designed to honor those who served in the military between Sept. 2, 1945 and Dec. 26, 1991.
Ball also wants the state to adopt the National Honor and Remember Flag, which honors soldiers killed in combat, and fly the flag over the State Capitol.
Ball also introduced a bill that would allow the town of North Salem to lower speed limits on town roads.
Ball on March 14 held an advocacy event for veterans at the Capitol and a hearing that probed a range of issues including a proposal by the governor to cut funding for veterans homes as well as unemployment and homelessness among veterans returning from the wars in the Middle East. Later that day the Senate passed a package of bills —three of which were sponsored by Ball, a former member of the Air Force —that address various issues related to veterans.
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) did not introduce any bills.
Carlucci on March 16, along with his three colleagues in the Independent Democratic Conference, called on the Assembly to pass a measure that would remove restrictions on a state program that provides tax credits for the restoration of historic buildings. The Senate included the proposal in its budget bills, but there is no comparable budget proposal in the Assembly. The bill, Carlucci said, would create 1,600 jobs and bolster tourism around the state, particularly in upstate communities that have been hammered by the recession.
The freshman senator on March 17 called on Entergy, the company that runs the Indian Point nuclear power plant, to create an emergency plan in case of an earthquake. The call, which has been echoed by a number of state officials, came in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which destroyed a nuclear power plant. Entergy spokesman Jim Steets said this week that the company is conducting a review of its emergency procedures.
Carlucci on March 19 held mobile office hours at the Haverstraw Community Center. He will hold similar events at the Shop Rite on Route 59 in Suffern on March 27 from 2 to 4 p.m and the Stop & Shop in West Haverstraw on April 2 from 10 a.m. to noon.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) introduced two bills. One would amend existing laws to allow animal shelters to transfer animals to other shelters in the state. The language to allow such a transfer was inadvertently left out of a law passed last year, the senator said.
Oppenheimer on March 15 was honored by the New York State Humane Association for passing a number of bills in recent years aimed at increasing animal adoption rates and creating a more humane system of euthanizing sheltered animals.
Oppenheimer also introduced a bill that would require that tax certiorari cases in the town of Rye be settled within one year. The bill was requested by the town after a number of businesses challenged their property assessments. Current law, town officials said, allows the cases to languish for years while the certiorari payments accumulate interest, effectively forcing the town to settle out of court. A similar bill has been introduced in the Assembly by George Latimer (D-Rye).
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) did not introduce any bills.
Stewart-Cousins is calling on Republican leaders in the Senate to restore funding to the Yonkers School District, which announced this week that it would have to cut more than 700 positions if a proposed $32.5 million in cuts are included in the state budget. The senator said that the cuts would be unnecessary if a tax surcharge on wealthy New Yorkers, which is set to expire Dec. 31, is extended. At an otherwise amicable joint press conference between legislative leaders and Gov. Cuomo on March 17, Senate Minority Leader John Sampson (D-Brooklyn) echoed Stewart-Cousins’ concerns about cuts to Yonkers schools.
The senator on March 10 met with patients and employees from the Open Door Family Medical Centers, a network of four health clinics in Westchester that collectively serve more than 40,000 people. The senator discussed the state budget and a proposed expansion of the network’s Sleepy Hollow facility.
Stewart-Cousins is collecting grant applications from local governments looking to lower the costs of providing various services. Most of the applications for the $96 million in state and federal grants are due by April 29; those interested should call the senator’s office at 914-423-4031.