Cuomo’s $20M grant plan to streamline services by local governments gets mixed reaction

| Times Herald-Record

Tucked in the state budget Gov. Andrew Cuomo presented last month was the latest carrot he wants to dangle to get local governments to merge or share services: a $20 million grant for whatever partnership of municipalities or counties comes up with a consolidation plan that would save the most in property taxes.

Cuomo has railed against the volume of municipalities and special taxing districts in New York, blaming excessive layers of government for the state’s high property taxes. Last year, the state required those entities to submit “efficiency plans” to demonstrate cost-cutting measures in order for homeowners in those jurisdictions to qualify for tax rebates.

He is touting his proposed scramble for $20 million as a way to induce local governments to devise innovative ways to streamline services. The winning partnership must achieve “the greatest permanent reduction in property taxes.”

“This is about building a stronger and more prosperous New York over the long haul,” Cuomo said in January when he announced the idea.

The reaction from the organization representing New York’s cities and villages was mixed: grateful for additional funding from Albany, but not sure that a competition for a single jumbo grant is the best way to distribute the money.

In recent testimony to state lawmakers, Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials, asked, “Does it really make sense to award $20 million to one project, when there are likely 200 initiatives that could successfully use one-tenth of that funding?”

Amplifying those remarks, Baynes told the Times Herald-Record by email last week that his organization’s members would prefer that $20 million was used “to give municipalities their first increase in municipal aid in eight years.”

He also said that a grant that large could enable larger municipalities to “knock down the financial barriers to large-scale consolidations,” but would be no use to “the vast majority of municipalities.”

Tim Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, argued that municipalities already have every incentive to streamline services and that little would be gained by “throwing more money at them” to do so. He also contended that unfunded state mandates are more to blame for high property taxes than the fact that New York has about 1,600 towns, villages, cities and counties.

“That’s a lot, yes,” Hoefer said. “They already have a lot of tools in their arsenal for sharing services. Where they struggle are with the unfunded mandates. State government has done little or nothing to roll those things back.”

© 2016 Times Herald-Record