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April 29, 2013

Progress slow on state mandate relief

'Million little things' stressing local budgets

Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered a ray of hope two weeks ago that he’s ready to discuss the financial strains on the state’s local governments, which are caught between a property-tax cap and a host of expenses over which they have little control.

“Their situation with the police and fire contracts is a specific that is begging that larger problem,” Cuomo said in a radio interview. “I want to use it as an opportunity to talk about the larger problem of distressed communities and governments and how the state can help.”

The governor has yet to elaborate about how he intends to approach the problem, but public salaries and pensions are only a part – albeit a big one – of a gloomy picture, local officials say.

The big cities “are all in very, very difficult straits, for all of the reasons we know about: cost of pension programs, etc.,” Oneonta Mayor Dick Miller said last week. “And their situations are, depending on who you talk to, are in some form of desperate.”

The governor proposed a cap on binding-arbitration awards, but the proposal, which is opposed by labor, ultimately was left out of the budgets approved by the Senate and Assembly.

State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said the cap was left out of the final budgets because the law is about to expire.

“At the time we were doing the budget, it was just taken out of the budget discussions and will certainly dealt with in some fashion between now and the end of June, because it will need to be,” he said.

Seward added that the state has taken some steps to address the pension issue.

“We did do the pension reform – the Tier 6 that was enacted will bring down pension costs for local government and school districts,” he said last week. “And in this year’s state budget, we are offering what we call pension smoothing. … It’s a vehicle (by which) local governments can spread out their pension costs.”

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