State can aid local governments

We hope the recent breakthrough between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and elected officials from cities and school districts across the state isn’t fool’s gold.

Cuomo recently met with the elected officials to build support for his proposal to require mediators to consider taxpayers’ ability to pay when awarding judgments to public workers, most of which go to police officers and firefighters. Mayors across the state have been asking for that specific change for years. Making it happen would be helpful to cash-strapped cities statewide.

More newsworthy, though, was Cuomo’s statement that he wants to use the binding arbitration reform “to talk about the larger problem of distressed communities and governments and how the state can help.”

Over the years, the costs of contracts to municipal unions – including pension contributions mandated by the state – have grown exponentially, crowding out programs that could help cities reinvest in themselves. Declining population, fewer businesses and an influx of poorer residents in need of services into the cores of cities have combined to make the old ways of handling municipal finances out of date.

For the past year, elected officials with the temerity to ask for the state’s help heard that the state would not help or, worse yet, that they should just let the state institute a control board to fix the problem. The state’s responses weren’t so much a cold shoulder as a slap in the face because city officials haven’t been asking for money. They realize the problem isn’t revenues, but costs. And, because of decisions made decades ago, cities need the state’s help to lower those costs.

We hope Cuomo has learned mayors, county executives and school boards have never been asking for a handout, but pleading for a fundamental shift in how New York state – and its lower levels of government – administers public programs. Mayors and school districts know Cuomo is correct when he says handouts from the state only perpetuate their budget problems -look no further than the end of federal stimulus money and the havoc its end created for school budgets over the past couple of years.

Everyone knows New York state and its lower levels of government have a serious financial problem looming on the horizon. Discussions between Cuomo and municipal leaders could be the first step on the long road to reshaping New York state, and we hope they are productive.