The New York State Constitution guarantees local governments certain rights of independence and self-governance. As State created entities, municipalities are subject to general supervision and direction by the State. But the State Constitution provides that most details, especially financial matters, are to be left up to each municipality. In addition to the State Constitution, the Legislature has enacted the Statute of Local Government, and the Municipal Home Rule Law. These laws supposedly limit the State’s right to interfere in the affairs of local governments. This is referred to as “home rule.” Unfortunately, in practice “home rule” is a fiction, and the State routinely ignores it.
The State overrides “home rule” by enacting mandates that dictate what local governments must do. Essentially the State doesn’t trust us to do what it wants. It takes away our discretion and tells us what we must do. The most recent example of the State’s violation of the Home Rule Law surfaced at the March 21 meeting of the County Ways and Means Committee. Legislators were advised that the County must pass a local law raising the salary of the District Attorney (“DA”). Why? Because the State has raised the salaries for Supreme Court and County Judges. A State statute, County Law §701, requires that any county with a full time DA must pay him/her the same salary as State-paid judges. The State has just given the Judges a raise, so the County “must” authorize a raise for the DA. When originally enacted thirty years ago the State provided most of the required funding. Now the State share has been reduced to 40% of the increased cost. Judges’ salaries were previously set by State Law at $119,800. The State is now increasing those salaries to more than $140,000. Why should the State be able to dictate what we pay our District Attorney, a county official?
There are numerous aspects of this situation that trouble me. The DA, unlike the Judges, is a “County” official, not a State official. So far, the DA is the only county official whose salary is set by the State. Can the State legislate the salaries of other County officials? Even if State control is limited only to the legal system, it could claim control of salaries for the County Attorney, Public Defender and Sheriff. What about salaries for the County Treasurer, County Clerk, Probation Director, Commissioner of Social Services, Public Health Director, Commissioner of Public Works, and even County Legislators? Are there any limits upon State interference in local affairs? Where does it stop?
My opposition to this law has nothing to do with our District Attorney, Keith Slep. He is hard working, skilled, professional, has years of experience, and does a great job prosecuting criminals. I don’t object to paying Keith Slep. I object to the State telling us what we “must do.” Many other county officials and employees would also like to be paid more. However, the reality is that county taxpayers already pay more in taxes than they can afford. Where can we draw the line?
It’s time to take a stand. The State laws involved are contradictory. One law says we must raise the DA’s salary, and another says the Board has discretion, and that the voters can demand a referendum. Unless someone can show me a good reason not to, I intend to vote against the proposed local law. If the Board passes it anyway, I urge voters to file a petition seeking a referendum. If the State wants to raise salaries for County officers it should take responsibility for its action, and should pay for it. The State does not have the right to tell me, or any other Legislator, how we must vote on any given matter. I intend to vote my conscience. My conscience tells me the State is wrong on this, and that it is time to “just say no.”