By Matt Youngfrau
SULLIVAN COUNTY February 4, 2003 There may be a budget proposal on the table, but local state representatives are warning that painful cuts are in store for citizens, regardless of any agreement that may happen on the budget.
Last Wednesday, New York State Governor George Pataki gave an address that detailed his proposed 2003-2004 executive budget. Before the address was given, it was expected there would be some hard cuts. Yet when it was over, the proposed cuts left most shocked, upset, worried, concerned, or even angry.
This is the worst budget in 40 years, commented New York State Senator John Bonacic, a Republican like Pataki. This was a reality check. It is a combination of many things that are beyond our control. There is no easy way to solve this. This is a time for tough choices.
This sets the stage. Were off, and we have a big mission, New York State Assemblyman Jake Gunther said. His proposal could be called Pataki-fee. He wants to raise all fees and surcharges. We do have to raise revenues. However, we should grab the bull by the horns and not shove it off on the counties and schools.
We are concerned, remarked County Manager Dan Briggs. There is a lot unknown here. We need to do an analysis. We realize, as citizens in this state and in this country, we must share the pain.
It is going to be difficult for government to operate, Town of Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini stated. I hope it will all be worked out.
The governors budget is over 1,000 pages long. Pataki is looking not to raise taxes but to cut jobs. He says he wants to increase revenue in other ways, such as adding fees. Currently, there is a two-year $11.5 billon budget gap. The budget presented by Pataki, however, is balanced.
Now the time for making those tough choices has come, Pataki said. As I see it, our choices are limited to two. Its a clear choice between taxes and jobs. The choice Ive presented to you today the choice between jobs and taxes is real. The grave consequences of making the wrong choices are just as real. A vote to raise job-killing taxes is a vote to prolong the crisis well into the future. A vote to reduce spending instead is a vote to end it quickly by creating jobs and strengthening our economy.
The course we must pursue is clear, and Im confident that we will make the right choice quickly and with a united voice, Pataki continued. In times of crisis, New Yorkers have always stood tall, stood firm and stood together. In this hour of economic adversity, there is, among New Yorkers, a real sense of uncertainty about jobs, about the future, about the outcome of this budget. Nothing would send a stronger and more positive message to the people of New York than our willingness to stand together and say with one voice: We will meet these challenges. We will make the tough decisions. And together, we will lead New York to its greatest day.
Several of Patakis proposals have caused great concern among local leaders. One of those areas is huge cuts in education. On average, it is a cut of 9 percent. That would mean less staff, less programs, and more crowded classrooms. Or it also could lead to an increase in school taxes.
His proposal hits extremely hard, Sullivan County BOCES Superintendent Dr. Martin Handler commented. It doesnt evenly distribute the negative impact. Despite his claim to not raise taxes, this does. It shifts the burden from the state level to the local level. I have every confidence that our local representatives, State Senator John Bonacic and Assemblyman Jake Gunther, will represent the countys schools interests in this debate.
This will hamper our ability to give services, Handler continued. Now is not the time to make cuts. It is the time to collaborate our efforts.
His proposal will mean a 25 percent increase in school taxes, Gunther added.
The cuts may also hit Sullivan County Community College hard. The college, which has made several major cuts over the last few years, would see their state aid disappear. That could add up to as much as $500,000 a year. Also, the governor wishes to eliminate the program that pays half the rent for colleges to rent satellite campuses. If that happens, the college could see their Monticello site closed.
We knew he had to do something. This would be a big impact, remarked SCCC President Dr. Mamie Howard Golladay. We cant take that kind of hit. We are still recovering from cuts made in the early 90s. It is very tough.
We have had to cut back so much over the last few years, Golladay continued. We cant cut anymore without jeopardizing the colleges mission. We have to operate and serve our students. The proposal was devastating to hear.
That hit I take personally, Gunther stated. I take it personally because my wife and I are products of a community college. My kids started at a community college. Im abhorrent to the cuts.
Another major cut proposed would be in the Empire Zone. The proposal would make the municipalities fiscal partners in the zone. That would equate to a 50-50 cut. According to local officials, not only would it defeat the purpose of the program, it would cripple it.
As it is proposed, it is quite contrary to the original intent, stated Sullivan County Planning and Community Development Commissioner Alan Sorensen. It would shift the major burden to the areas that need the program. It would be the antithesis of the program. I cannot believe that the state would be foolish enough to do it. I am concerned, but I hope wisdom prevails and they dont do it.
We would be willing to challenge it in court, remarked Sullivan County Legislature Chair Leni Binder. It could close the Empire Zone.
Clearly, it would be completely different, noted County Manager Dan Briggs. We have registered our concern about this with our representatives.
It is expected that this will become a very ugly budget fight between the governor and the Legislature. However, both representatives would like to turn the negatives into some positives.
This could be an opportunity to do mandate relief, Bonacic said. We hope we can become creative in our cuts.
There has to be painful decisions, Gunther said. The governor has his marbles more than most of us. However, it was a poor presentation, and the worst budget I have seen. We can do better.
We are at war, Gunther continued. It is extremely tenuous times. We were in a recession and then the 9/11 attacks came. It crippled the economy.
While it is too early to say for certain, it appears a budget will not be agreed upon. In fact, many are concerned that history will repeat itself. Two years ago when an agreement could not be reached, the Legislature passed a bare bones budget and forced the governor to negotiate.
I do not like to say it will be late, Bonacic commented. I wish that if we cannot agree we should let New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi do it. I would accept his number, and he would make the hard choices.
It is not up to me, but I would give it until April 1, Gunther remarked. There will be difficult decisions, and we cannot wait until August this time.