Albany County Budget Review Process Set to Begin

Two week ago, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy presented his 2014 County budget. Now, the legislature will begin its extensive review of the document in a series of meetings that will deal with all of our county departments. Departments heads will be asked to present reports to our Audit and Finance Committee detailing their financial operations as it relates to the budget.

This years proposed budget comes in at 574 million dollars and carries a 1.6% tax increase. It also funds our nursing home for half the year. And as I have said many times in the past, my philospy of government is that we live up to our obligations as far as the services we provide without creating any undue burdens for the taxpayers.

Here is a breakdown of the review process.

Session 1 10/30 6pm
Sheriff
County Clerk
Comptroller
District Attorney
County Attorney
Public Defender
Alt Public Defender

Session 2 11/6 6pm
Social Services
Mental Health
Children Services
Aging
Human Resources
Civil Service

Session 3 11/8 6pm
Crime Victims Center
Planning
Nursing Home

Session 4 11/13 6pm
Board of Elections
Health
Public Works
Probation
General Services

Session 5 11/15 6pm
County Executive
Management and Budget
Contingency
Community College Tuition
CDTA
Risk Retention
Coroners
Hockey Facility
Sewer District
Cornell
Stormwater Coalition
Soil and Water
Civic Center
Veterans Affairs
Legislature

All meetings are open to the public and will be held at the county office building at 112 State Street in the Charles E. Cahill Room, located on the first floor.

I would encourage anyone that is interested in the budget process to attend any or all of these meetings.

Shutdown is Shameful

capitalclosed If it’s one thing I’ve learned during my years in government it’s that without compromise, you’re not going to get very far. Sadly, our representatives in the federal government have seemed to have forgotten what it is they were sent to Washington to do, that is the people’s business.

We have now entered the second week of the federal government shutdown and there is no end in sight. 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed, meaning they are not being paid. And make no mistake, these are working class people, living pay check to pay check being put into a very difficult position. Our national parks and monuments to our great country are closed. Families who have lost loved ones in service to their country are not receiving their death benefits.

And according to economists, the federal shutdown will cost the economy overall 300 million dollars a day in lost output. Certainly not what the doctor ordered for an economy that is still on the mend.

Here close to home, in my own legislative district, our food pantry in Cohoes will be forced to shut its doors if the shutdown continues into November. But in light of all this, our elected representatives in Washington continue to receive their pay and refuse to come together to bring the wheels of government back into motion. Add to the fact that the salary for a member of Congress is 174,000 and that 47% of members of Congress are millionaires, and you have a situation that is simply shameful.

For us here at the local level, we don’t have the luxury of just shutting down because someone did not get their way. Imagine a situation where your city or county government just shut down resulting in no police or fire protection, no water, no garbage pick up etc..

I would simply encourage our elected officials in Washington to look themselves in the mirror and when they do, imagine that military widow looking back at them. Imagine the face of a World War II vet who traveled to Washington, only to discover that the great monument to their sacrifice was shut down staring back at them. I hope they look and imagine a Cohoes family who will go to bed hungry because the food pantry was closed.

If they did that then maybe, just maybe, our government would be back up and running.

Albany County Discount Drug Card Hits Milestone

proact_logo The Albany County Discount Drug Card Program has hit a milestone. Residents who have chosen to enroll in the program have saved 3.5 million dollars on their prescriptions since 2010. Those enrolled have filled more than 93,000 prescriptions at an average savings of 45% on each medication filled. That’s real money and real savings! The county legislature adopted the program with those without insurance most on our minds. But we have found that those who have insurance but may be underinsured have also benefited from the program.

Albany County is one of 50 counties in the state who has adopted the program which is administered by Proact. There are no fees associated with the program and one card can cover an entire family. There are no enrollment forms and everyone in the county is eligible. This program is an absolute win win as it has cost the county nothing and has now saved its residents millions. We have often heard the stories of those on fixed incomes having to choose between food and medicine. Our program makes life for these individuals just a little more easier as we like to think no American should be forced to choose between the two.

I want to thank my colleagues in the legislature including Majority Leader Frank Commisso and Legislator Lucille McKnight for working with me to make this program a success for the people of Albany County.

If anyone is interested in obtaining a card or for more information, go to http://www.albanycounty.com/legislature and click the Proact icon. You can also visit http://www.nyrxdiscountcard.com to download a card. You can also call my office at 518-447-4957 and I will gladly mail you a brochure.

Easing the Property Tax Burden

It’s hard to believe that another summer has come and gone. And as the air turns colder and the days get shorter, it’s a sure sign that municipal budget season is upon us. By now, localities have already begun the budget process for the 2014 fiscal year.

As I travel around the state, if there is one common concern among all of the individuals I speak to, whether I was in Albany, Buffalo or Long Island, it was that of property taxes. We know by now that New York State has some of the highest property tax rates in the nation. We know that these high tax rates drive businesses and families out of New York and create undue hardships for those who want to make New York and the Capital Region home. Perhaps the most vulnerable group to high property taxes are our seniors who are on fixed incomes. Each year, property taxes go up, but their incomes remain the same.

For years, elected officials have talked about easing the property tax burden. Most recently, the much lauded property tax cap was introduced in New York with the claim that now finally, residents would see real property tax relief. But as we have seen and as I have discussed in a previous blog, the property tax cap so called is not really a cap at all. Furthermore, the tax cap so called did nothing to address the root causes of high property tax, that being unfunded mandates passed down from New York State to county and local governments.

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In Albany County, we have 9 such mandates as illustrated above. Taken together, these 9 mandates accounted for nearly 177 million dollars of our county budget. Remember, these are services that New York State mandate that the county provide but are given no financial method to do so. And as I stated when I would go door to door, if not for these unfunded mandates, the county could afford all of its services including the nursing home with minimal property tax.

Unfunded mandates are not the only reason for high property tax in New York. As i’m sure many of you well know, it’s not necessarily just your city or town tax that hits your the hardest but your local school district. In Cohoes, our school district budget is nearly twice the municipal budget.

One method of combating this is altering the way we fund our schools. One idea is to shift to a state income tax model. Meaning, instead of using the property tax, schools would be funded through the existing state income tax system. This certainly would level the playing field and provide a larger taxable population. Currently, Assemblyman Kevin Cahill of Ulster County has proposed such a law. It will be interesting to see if this idea or any other idea gains any traction on Capitol Hill.

But one thing is certain, we need to start taking the burden off of our property owners. Conceivably, if the pain is spread to a lager population, it would mean less pain for the individual taxpayer. As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “there is nothing in this world certain but death and taxes.” While that may be true, it does not mean we should perpetuate an unfair system.

Until real reform in enacted, those of us at the local level will continue to live up to our obligations, provide the necessary services and do so to the best of our ability without any undue burdens to our taxpayers.

September 11th, 2001-Why we should never forget

Firemen911 Today we mark the anniversary of the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. All across the country and in fact the world, people are taking a moment to reflect on that terrible day and remember all those that were lost. And they do so while going about their normal daily routine, going to work or going to school, much like those who lost their lives on that day.

It is true that with each passing year, the memory of that day does get a little dimmer. Certainly, the raw emotion that we all felt on that morning has long since passed. The site of the former World Trade Center is now almost completely rebuilt with the Freedom Tower rising high into the sky, a monument of sorts to the perseverance of the nation. Osama Bin Laden is dead and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down and are troops are coming home.

However, it’s important that we keep in our collective conscience what happened on that day. It’s important to remember the hundreds of firefighters, police officers and first responders who gave up their lives to save others. It’s important to remember the civilian heroes, those who would not abandon their fellow co-workers, and the passengers who fought to bring down their airplane before it was crashed into the Capitol.

And we should never forget how united we were as Americans in the days following the attacks. With great tragedy came a tremendous outpouring of patriotism and basic human kindness.

And as a firefighter, I am especially mindful of my fellow brothers who lost their lives and their familes who continue to mourn. For firefighters, today will always be a difficult day. But we are blessed because we are called to do a job and blessed by God with a love for the job. As I have often said, it is the best job in the world.

So as we mark the events of 9/11/01, let’s be sure we not only remember those who were lost, but that we honor those who were lost. We can do this by saying a prayer, attending a memorial service or just taking a moment or two out of our busy days to reflect. Because as Americans, we must never forget.

The Dangers of Texting and Driving

texting Perhaps we are all guilty of it at some point or another. You find yourself driving to work or to the store, and you hear the chirp coming from your phone. Your immediate instinct is to grab the phone and see who it is. But it’s an instinct, however, that can prove deadly.

In 2011, 23% of auto collisions involved cell phones with text messaging making a crash 23 times more likely to happen. What’s even more alarming, is the amount of young people who admit to textin while driving with 77% of young adults saying they believe that they can text and drive safely. And according to the Institute for Highway Safety, texting while driving causes 1.6 million accidents a year causing 330 thousand injuries and 11 teen deaths every day.

Texting_While_Driving

Most states including New York have laws against texting and driving. This summer, the law was beefed up with increased fines.First-time offenders will pay a fine of $50 to $150.Second-time offenders, who text and drive within 18 months of another texting offense, will pay a fine of $50 to $200.Subsequent offenders will pay a fine of $50 to $400.

But sadly, tragic accidents still take place because of texting and driving. As parents, we must start by setting a good example with our kids. If we are on our phones and texting and driving, you can be sure our kids will do the same when they are behind the wheel. We also need to tell our kids that not only are they not to text and drive but if they are in a car with someone texting and driving that they are to inform someone and not ride with that person again.

While technology is a wonderful thing, sadly it has its negative consequences. But as with seatbelt awareness back in the 80s, through education and enforcement, we can combat what is sadly becomming a epidemic in the United States.

As a firefighter of over 20 years, I have come upon far too many tragic car accidents that I care to remember. But what is so distrubing here is that these accidents caused by texting are so easily preventable.

If you have not done so, I urge you to talk with your kids about the dangers of texting while driving. Tell them that nothing is that important to take your eyes of the road for any prolonged length of time. And remember to set a good example and don’t text and drive. Our kids look to us as examples of how to behave in the world. Let us always remember that as it may just save their lives.

Understanding the Tax Cap

A property tax cap. Sounds good, right? That’s how the folks in Albany wanted it to sound. But, sadly, the property tax cap “so called” is nothing more than a political ploy to shift the focus away from state law makers and make county and local elected officials the “bad guys” for raising taxes.

Now, come to find out, the 2% cap is actually even lower. This year, counties, towns and cities across New York State will be faced with a 1.66% property tax cap as opposed to the 2% cap because the tax cap adjusts to the consumer price index which is now below 2%.

Now, make no mistake about it, we in New York pay way too much in property taxes. If you took my house and moved it to South Carolina, I would be paying almost half the amount in property taxes I do now. But this property tax cap “so called” is no cap at all, just a ploy by those in Albany, passing their problems down to the counties and cities.

It’s estimated that New York counties will loose between 20-25 million dollars in revenue because of the adjusted “cap.” This is done while Albany continues to send down mandates to municipalities all the while saying to do more with even less. They are also sending down less state aid to municipalities. Politicians in Albany get to say they are fiscally responsible for enacting a tax cap while local elected leaders are faced with paving roads, running police and fire departments, providing safe, clean water and a whole host of vital municipal services that thousands of residents rely on daily.

There are several provisions in the law that allow municipalities to exceed the tax cap. 60% of a governing body must vote in favor to override. In school district budget votes, 60% of the voters must vote to override. There are also several items that are excluded from the cap, those being capital costs for school districts, pension contribution increases that exceed two percent and others. There are also many factors that can raise your property taxes even with the cap. If there is a decrease in assessed property in a given year, your taxes could increase. If there is a change in assessment, your taxes could increase. What you ultimately pay in property tax is determined by the value of your property and your municipalities tax rate.

In drafting the law, along with the exemptions, the state created a formula that is as complex as an IRS worksheet. It is an 8 step formula which determins a municipalites tax levy limit. So, essentially, your taxes could go up 3.38% but still remain under the 2% “cap.” Make sense? Only in New York would 2+2 not equal 4.

So at the end of the day, what are we left with? We are left with a cap that’s not a cap as stated by the Governor himself. We are left with municipal leaders at the local level trying to accommodate yet another unfunded mandate, all be it a political one, so they won’t be labeled as irresponsible tax raisers by state lawmakers. And we are still left with property tax payers paying way too much as towns, cities and counties attempt to keep the level of services that those tax payers rely upon daily.

As we approach municipal budget season, these issues will be hotly debated all across the county and state. It will take courage and leadership to make the right choices that benefit the common good of the people. And, yes, we must do this while making sure that there is no undue burden to the taxpayers.

But, sadly, the property tax cap was not a solution to any of the problems that face the property tax payer or the municipalities.