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Syracuse mayor, a Democrat, questions Cuomo's borrowing plan

Thursday, January 24, 2013
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— Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, co-chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to ease the fiscal crisis affecting local governments by borrowing money to help cover their operating costs.

In his state budget address this week, Cuomo, also a Democrat, proposed legislation to allow local governments to borrow against anticipated savings in the state’s new pension plan.

“You are talking about what is going to happen in 10 years, 25 years from now ... and you are pinning all these things on assumptions,” Miner said in an interview Thursday. “When you pin your plans on assumptions on fiscal conditions, inevitably you see more bad things than good.”

It was a rare public criticism of Cuomo by politicians of either major party. Cuomo appointed Miner co-chairwoman of the state party last year. Miner said forcing a “robust debate” is her responsibility as mayor.

Even Cuomo, in his 2010 campaign plan for pension and fiscal reform, said he “would not support borrowing to fund operating expenses.” He called it “pushing today’s problems down the road and making future taxpayers pay for today’s mistakes.”

Cuomo last week sought a “unified” agenda and message from all levels of government during a teleconference with Democratic leaders and officials statewide, according to the Capital online news organization.

Many cities and counties upstate and on Long Island, however, have been in crisis and approaching insolvency for years because of rising government costs and declining tax bases and populations. Miner and other local officials blame much of the crisis on state mandates such as pension benefits and costs set in Albany and pushed by politically powerful public worker unions.

Cuomo said Tuesday he hopes local governments will be allowed to borrow against the state’s new Tier VI pension plan, which has lower benefits for future state and local government hires and is expected save billions of dollars over 30 years. The plan doesn’t reduce government contributions to current pensioners or current workers when they retire.

Cuomo also said this week that municipalities need to cut spending to attack the fiscal crisis, much like he did in state government. He said local governments can’t rely on the state for bailouts or take on local costs.

“The taxpayer’s pocket is not a bottomless piggy bank,” Cuomo said in his budget address.

“You’re right,” Miner responded Thursday, “if this is something that is in my control. But I have no control.”

Local leaders from the Yonkers, Rockland County, Rochester, Albany and Buffalo also have taken deep cuts and seek more help from Albany, mostly in reducing state mandated costs.

“We’ve done all that we can, and when you look at what is driving us to fiscal instability, it’s pension costs,” Miner said. That includes reducing the city work force to 10 percent below the 2009 total and closing senior citizens facilities. “We don’t have anything to do with pension costs.”

Cuomo wouldn’t comment on Miner’s statements. Following her comments, Cuomo’s office passed along a statement from Republican Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney issued Wednesday supporting Cuomo’s plan.

“Governor Cuomo for the third consecutive year has put forward a budget that is good news for local governments across New York state,” Mahoney’s statement says. “The governor recognizes the fiscal pressures facing counties, cities, towns, and villages.”

Another Democrat, former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky of the Wagner School of New York University, said few think it’s wise policy to borrow to pay for current operational expenses.

“I know of no one who thinks this is a good practice,” said Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman from Westchester who is studying the local government crisis. “You don’t borrow money to pay for costs of your current operating budget. It is what got us into the municipal crisis of 1975, and it cannot work.”

Cuomo’s appointed lieutenant governor, former Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, said if Miner isn’t pleased with Cuomo’s plan she could request a state control board to take over finances Syracuse.

A control board is a final option for financially troubled cities and counties. It can wield extraordinary power over spending and labor contracts to avoid insolvency.

 
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