Even with goodwill, state can’t win

OBSERVER Photo New York again invested in Dunkirk last week when it handed out $2.5 million for Smart Growth.

Some day down the road, Chautauqua County residents might actually get past a delusional mindset that New York state hampers the way our local governments deliver services. Despite a stronger presence from state Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Albany in recent years — from Dunkirk to Jamestown — there is a sentiment here that continues to believe we are a victim of decisions we cannot control.

That, for all intents and purposes, is lazy.

We have a lot more say than we tend to believe. Our biggest problem locally is we do not like to change how we operate, even if it is terribly inefficient.

Consider the city of Dunkirk. It does not accept credit card payments at City Hall … in the 21st century. Just about everyone carries a debit or credit card.

That policy is not a state mandate. It is the result of a local choice — one that is similar in other municipalities.

How about funding for school districts? The biggest local tax homeowners pay is to fund your educational facility. Despite at least three attempts in the north county to consolidate school districts in the last 15 years, we continue to want our small districts to hang on, even though enrollments for at least four of these districts hovers right around 600 or less.

What is the amount New York state invests in this county? On education alone, it is staggering. For the 2017-18 year, Albany has pledged $260 million to help county schools operate.

That is $16 million more than the total amount of 13 school budgets in this newspaper’s readership area for the current year. Realistically, no matter how much you think New York state and Albany is taking in money from us, it is subsidizing our schools.

Some districts, especially the smaller ones, make out quite well. Consider, as just one example, Brocton. It has a budget that totals $17.8 million for 545 students, according to the state Education Department report card. That’s $32,661 spent per student, with $12.5 million — or 70 percent — of its budget expenses coming in the form of state aid from Albany.

No efficiency there, but don’t tell that to the current Board of Education, which is in the process of planning more capital improvements for an oversized facility that will be heavily funded by you know who: the state.

At the county level, some of our legislators and leaders are just as vocal on how state mandates hamper their budget. That belief took on a life of its own during the tenure of former County Executive Greg Edwards. It seemed to quiet almost to a whisper until current Executive Vince Horrigan’s most recent proposal last month when he stated 85 percent of the county plan is state controlled.

On salaries alone, that’s not true. Salaries and benefits, through contracts, are locally negotiated. Horrigan’s proposal, before recent reductions by lawmakers, stood at $250 million. About $70 million of that amount — or 28 percent — is employee compensation. One exception to that rule, however, is District Attorney Patrick Swanson. At $244,000 in compensation, his rate is set by the state.

Also of note is the increased revenue from the sales tax. During Horrigan’s tenure in 2015, the state allowed the county’s collection coffers to increase by 0.5 percent from 7.5 percent to 8 percent. Though not popular in this corner, it has been helpful in lowering the property tax rate.

So while the mention of state mandates continues in circles where funding and assistance are very evident from Albany, there’s other boosts the area is seeing on an even greater scale from Cuomo. Athenex is targeted for Dunkirk. Work continues on the National Comedy Center in Jamestown. Dunkirk and Gowanda both received $2.5 million in Smart Growth funding. Dunkirk — and its schools — also are receiving about $7.5 million in transition aid since the NRG plant is not running.

Those efforts alone total $560 million in state funding. So, legislators and school officials, you can complain about the mandates. But remember the bigger picture. We’re a county of 129,000 people with 18 school districts and far too many other layers of government.

Without Albany and its support, our troubles are much worse.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.