Various state officials are publicizing what a great job they are doing by balancing the state budget, and by requiring local officials to stay within the state “Tax Cap” Law. That sounds great but ignores a lot of facts. It is true that the state has managed to eliminate huge projected state budget deficits. But how has it done that? There are usually only two options for saving money. Those are increasing revenue, or reducing spending. However, the state has another option. It can push its expenses onto local governments. In recent years New York State has been employing this approach more and more.
In most states the major Welfare or Public Assistance programs are paid for by a combination of federal and state funds. New York is unique in requiring local governments to pay a major share of this expense. Not surprisingly NYS has some of the highest real property taxes in the nation. As unfair as that arrangement has been, it has recently gotten even worse. Historically the federal government has paid 50% of the cost of programs such as “Safety Net-TANF (“Temporary Assistance for Needy Families”), with the State paying 25% and local governments paying 25%. To combat ballooning federal deficits it has cut its share and eliminated some programs. Then the State decided that it wouldn’t pay its usual 50% share. The 2011-12 State Budget dramatically lowered the State’s responsibility for the Safety Net Program. Instead of paying 50% the State now pays only 29%. The County share has increased from 50% to 71%. This 21% increase amounts to almost $100 million for upstate counties. Ironically this increase coincided with the enactment of the “Tax Cap” Law that mandated that local governments not raise their tax levy. Is it fair to impose millions of dollars in new expenses, while forbidding local governments to increase their revenue? Absolutely not, but that didn’t prevent the State from doing it anyway.
The same thing has happened in the area of Child Welfare programs. The State has reduced its share of child welfare programs such as Child Abuse Prevention, Child Protective Services, Adoption funding, and similar programs from 65% to only 62%. In addition, it has also capped its child welfare funding, which further limits assistance to local counties. This programs currently cost counties more than $286.1 million, so a 3% shift along with a cap increases local expenses by millions of dollars.
The State has also imposed much higher standards on local governments for providing assigned counsel for indigent defense services in court proceedings. The State has provided a significant increase for the five largest counties in the State, but has not made any provision to assist the remaining counties. This is likely to result in dramatically increase the cost for indigent defense services in the next few years.
In 2009 the State enacted the “Department of Health Oversight Law” that requires the State Health Department to conduct annual reviews of HIV and Hepatitis C care in state and local correctional facilities. At about the same time the State began systematically closing State prisons and moving its prisoners to local (County) jails. It also adopted a policy of refusing to compensate counties for the cost of housing state prisoners in local jails. Finally, we are now required to provide expensive health care for all prisoners, including state prisoners. The costs of drugs to treat HIV and Hepatitis C are enormous. For example, a 12 week course of medicine to treat Hepatitis C is approximately $90,000, not counting staff costs.
These are only a few of the most egregious examples of how the State has pushed costs down onto local governments. The Courts have been totally unsympathetic. They have ruled that local governments are simply extensions of the State, and have no right to refuse such unfair treatment. Remember this the next time your elected State officials claim they are saving you money. That is pure hypocrisy. The State officials are still spending the money. They are just making local taxpayers pay for it.