From Gov. Cuomo should apologize to Syracuse for ‘cold-hearted’ remark — and mandates (Commentary)

Bill Samuels is the founder of EffectiveNY, a statewide nonprofit good government group. Morgan Pehme is EffectiveNY’s executive director.

By Bill Samuels and Morgan Pehme

How many years does Andrew Cuomo have to be governor before he starts taking responsibility for the economic woes he is imposing upon the cities and counties of Upstate New York? When The Post-Standard asked him last week whether the state would help pay to repair Syracuse’s aging water mains, the governor had the nerve to respond, “Show us how you become economically stronger and create jobs. Then you fix your own pipes.”

This cold-hearted comment is another appalling example of the governor’s practice of pointing the finger at anyone other than himself, instead of assuming accountability for strangling our local governments with massive unfunded mandates. Every Upstater — the co-author of this article, Bill Samuels, included — is right to feel insulted by these callous remarks and should demand that the governor apologize.

While Gov. Cuomo pats himself on the back for the state aid Syracuse and its school system receives, with his other hand he is picking Onondaga County’s pocket of more than $100 million every year that could go to reducing property taxes and addressing critical infrastructure needs. That $100 million — $105,614,117 to be exact — is the portion of the state’s Medicaid bill that Cuomo and the Legislature have forced Onondaga County to pay in fiscal year 2014-15.

Onondaga County is not alone in having to shoulder this enormous mandate imposed on it by Albany. Statewide, our local governments have to come up with 15 percent of New York’s total Medicaid costs, which adds up to a whopping $7.6 billion. What is so unfair about this humongous mandate is that New York requires its local governments to pick up far more of its Medicaid costs than any other state; California, which has a population double that of our state, is a distant second to us at $1 billion.

(Cuomo) is picking Onondaga County’s pocket of more than $100 million every year that could go to … addressing critical infrastructure needs
To foot this colossal Medicaid bill, New York’s counties have to send a major portion of the money they collect in property taxes to Albany — a staggering 80 percent in the case of Onondaga County — rather than spending those precious dollars at home or, better yet, as EffectiveNY proposes, passing on those savings to residents in the form of permanent property tax relief.

Property taxes are the No. 1 source of revenue by far for our local governments. If Cuomo were really serious about cities like Syracuse overcoming their economic struggles on their own, he would stop sucking away the money they collect in property taxes into Albany’s coffers and instead let them keep those dollars in the communities that so desperately need them.

Cuomo boasts that the state is back on firm fiscal footing because of his leadership. If that is the case, why is Albany gorging itself on Onondaga County’s $100 million at a time when Syracuse is under such economic strain that it cannot afford to repair its water system — the most basic of human needs?

The notion that our state should cover the entirety of its Medicaid costs, instead of passing them on to our cash-strapped counties and cities, is not a new one. Back in 1991, the governor’s father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, proposed that very approach, saying, “In one bold step, we can dramatically improve the affordability of quality public health care and relieve local governments and property taxpayers of the most significant burden imposed upon them by the State of New York.”

Twenty years later, in 2011, a bipartisan group of elected officials pleaded with Gov. Andrew Cuomo to follow through with his father’s desired reform, but the governor was dismissive: “Do we have the money to subsidize [the counties]? No.”

If we didn’t then, we certainly do now. In his State of the State address in January, the governor proposed a $1.7 billion property tax credit program to address New York’s dubious distinction of having the highest real property taxes in the nation. That’s just $500 million shy of the $2.2 billion needed to cover the local share of Medicaid that falls on all of the counties outside of New York City.

It is time for Cuomo to take his father’s advice and free our counties from this crushing Medicaid mandate. If the governor doesn’t think that providing clean water to Syracuse is a worthy priority for his administration, the least he can do is tighten his belt a little in Albany, pay the state’s Medicaid bill, and let Onondaga County keeps its property tax dollars at home. Until he does, his insistence that Syracuse fix its own crumbling infrastructure is nothing more than an insult added to injury.
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