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Mandate relief unlikely to come without a fight

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Property and sales tax revenue Jefferson County sets aside for funding state-mandated programs has increased by 7 percentage points since 2009, according to the last five annual budgets.

In the coming year, these programs will eat up almost half of total tax revenue and take 82.9 percent of the property tax levy.

That’s after more than $37 million in state and federal aid is subtracted from the $78.2 million it costs to provide essential services ranging from criminal prosecution to mental health and hygiene to Department of Social Services entitlements and programs.

According to the 2013 adopted budget, county governments have had to pay more and more money into mandated programs while the state’s contributions have remained flat.

According to Information Technology Director Gregory C. Hudson, it’s not just that the amount of local money demanded by the programs has increased, it’s the fact that the county has no say in how that money is spent.

In contrast to highway maintenance and Sheriff’s Department road patrol, which are partially funded by state and federal money but completely under the jurisdiction of the county, state-mandated programs amount to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to local government that can become problematic when trying to tailor spending programs to specific communities.

In other parts of the state, requirements to fund state-mandated programs have landed local governments in dire fiscal straits.

A Dec. 28 report from state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli stated that many local governments have had to dip into reserve funds to make ends meet: “A practice that is not sustainable in the long term,” said Mr. DiNapoli.

While Jefferson County’s relatively robust $11 million reserve fund has kept the county out of hot water in these lean economic times, it is by no means a guarantee against financial trouble.

The New York State Association of Counties, an advocacy group for local government, has launched a campaign to encourage county officials and residents to petition state representatives for mandate reform.

The campaign, called the County 9 for 90, asks for reform in the nine major areas that, according to NYSAC, consume an average of 90 percent of the county property tax levy: Medicaid, public assistance/safety net, child welfare, preschool special education, early intervention, indigent defense, probation, youth detention and pensions.

According to the association’s “Roadmap for Mandate Relief,” published in October, these reform measures include putting a cap on the amount local governments are required to contribute, placing the burden of funding some programs entirely on the state, and “streamlining” some programs by increasing the autonomy counties have in organizing operations.

According to Mr. Hudson, the relationship among state and federal aid, local tax revenue and state-mandated programs is “a balancing act.”

“When the state gives mandate relief in one area, it often takes it back in another,” he said. “And when federal aid is reduced, the counties and state pick up more costs.”

While county officials would like to see mandate relief in the coming years, it will likely come piecemeal and only after a protracted battle.

Legislator Scott A. Gray, chairman of the county’s Finance and Rules Committee, said legislators “were kicking and screaming for years over the associated cost for Medicaid,” before the state agreed in 2005 to hold local costs to a 3 percent annual growth rate.

In 2012 the state enacted a new zero growth Medicaid cap, which won’t be fully effective until 2015.

If the fight over the Medicaid cap is any indication, NYSAC has its work cut out for it.

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