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Reform needed to control costs, encourage bargaining

As local school and municipal leaders attempt to keep their budgets under the property tax levy cap without destroying valuable programs and services, they need the governor and the Legislature to offer a helping hand this legislative session, which ends in June.

While recently enacted pension reforms will save billions of tax dollars in the long term, state lawmakers can provide immediate relief by repealing the Triborough Amendment -- a statutory obligation unique to New York's public sector.

What Triborough means in day-to-day terms is that employees within a collective bargaining unit continue to receive automatic pay increases even though their employment contract has expired. The automatic raises come in the form of "step" and "lane" increments for added experience and training -- often on top of an across-the-board pay increase.

Nearly all contracts with automatic step and lane pay increases were negotiated during better economic times. The property tax levy cap now in place for schools and local governments sets forth resource limits that require leaders to think and act differently. We can no longer be tied to outdated pay structures based almost exclusively on length of service.

School districts and local governments want to negotiate compensation plans that reward performance outcomes, added responsibilities, challenging working conditions or specialized skills. Yet the Triborough Amendment serves as a disincentive for union leaders to negotiate new contracts.

Personnel costs are the largest component of a school district or local government budget, comprising at least 70 percent of all expenses. Therefore, the only meaningful way to tame spending is to address rising personnel costs.

With its guarantee of automatic pay increases to employees, whether the contract has expired or not, the Triborough Amendment contributes to unaffordable cost increases.

The many members of the Let New York Work Coalition, a large and growing group representing education, business and local government leaders, urge state lawmakers to repeal the Triborough Amendment in order to free schools and local governments from the obligation to pay automatic step increases when a contract expires.

Even after doing so, the original Triborough Doctrine, which prevents public employees from striking, would remain in place, as would the collective bargaining rights of public employees as per the state's Taylor Law.

Lawmakers deserve to bask in the limelight of pension reform, but in order to make a real and immediate impact for local taxpayers and municipal governments, they must end the automatic cost increases guaranteed by the Triborough Amendment.

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Timothy Kremer is executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. Brian Sampson is executive director of Unshackle Upstate.