SCARSDALE, N.Y. – State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins discussed unfunded mandates' debilitating effects on Westchester municipalities at Thursday's Scarsdale Forum membership meeting.
Eighty-five cents of every tax dollar residents pay to the county is immediately sent to the state to cover public assistance, child welfare and pensions for government employees.
Stewart-Cousins, the first woman elected to a Democratic conference leadership position, said communities will struggle to continue functioning if something doesn’t change.
“There is a consciousness about mandates,” she said. “The lowest-hanging fruits are being drawn down, but the reality is that municipalities and school districts cannot really continue to survive without relief.”
Currently, pensions account for $91 million of the $225 million county budget and are expected to rise another $4 million next year. Stewart-Cousins said some districts look toward to saving money by pension-smoothing.
“In this governor’s budget, he has looked at pension-smoothing, which may or may not be what you want, but for some districts it will make a difference,” she said. “In Yonkers that practice will mean saving $7 million for the school district.”
According to the senator, many state guidelines for mandates are stricter and more expensive then federal guidelines. The last state budget put in place a mandate relief council to evaluate ways to lower their impact on municipalities, she said.
“The reason the council exists is to relieve pressure on schools and municipalities. If there’s a way things can be done better, it can be introduced to the council,” Stewart-Cousins said. “The council is committed to looking at guidelines on the state level and trying to align them with the federal counterparts. People will see an easing of some burden in that way.”
The council began as a task force, but evolved so its members could better enact reform. As a task force, it lacked the power to create change, but as a council it can sanction legislative change.
“There had to be a systematic way to look at the mandates from the past and to stop mandates going forward. That’s the progress that has been made,” the senator said. “The council has teeth, we can change things. We can go to an agency head and tell them a rule started in 1920 makes no sense and is costing us money.”
Stewart-Cousins said it’s important that agencies don’t live in the past, but adjust to new economic circumstances.
“Before the last few years, mandate relief wasn’t even a consideration,” she said. “When the state makes a commitment, we need to do it. Our economic fortunes have changed. It’s not okay to walk away from those commitments. We need to find a way to alleviate the burden from municipalities.”