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HELPING THE CITY HELP ITSELF

Part of the reason that Buffalo has become a constant beggar at Albany's door is the burdensome cost of mandates it sets forth on the city and other state municipalities. In the past, rather than do away with these unfunded mandates, the state has eased the burden by increasing state aid each year.

But the old way of doing business changed on Sept. 11. The state apparently is not going to have the money to meet the needs of Buffalo. Now is the time for Albany to act responsibly and lift these mandates, giving Buffalo the ability to help itself weather the approaching fiscal crisis. Ridding municipalities of unfunded state mandates may not resolve all fiscal problems, but it would go a long way toward mitigating them. It is the least damaging and most fiscally responsible route to take.

The real question is whether state legislators have the courage to do what's right for the state as a whole, even if it angers the special interests who provide the money and manpower that helps keep them in office.

Take Buffalo, for example, which is facing a $22.5 million budget gap, a number that was reduced from $31 million through layoffs and other cost-cutting measures. City officials have repeatedly gone to Albany asking for relief from state mandates. If that relief had been given, the city could live on less state aid, and without a decrease in service. Without change at the state level, it is nearly impossible for the city to make sweeping changes in its own budget.

Here are just a few of the costs the state has forced on municipalities:

Pension payments for firefighters and police. Unlike some blue-collar and white-collar employees who pay into their pensions, police and fire don't. As a result, the city has budgeted to contribute $2.7 million, whereas the city's contribution for non-uniformed employees is $325,000.

The disabled firefighters' and police benefit. No one would begrudge these brave men and women from getting their pay after being injured while protecting city residents. However, because of a state mandate, which, of course, Albany doesn't pay for, firefighters and police on injured leave continue to receive raises, even if they've been off the job for years. The state feels this is the right thing to do, it just doesn't want to pay for it. So it makes the city pay the tab.

Salary supplements. Firefighters are entitled to request a salary supplement from the city if they receive performance-of-duty or accidental-disability retirement. That's the difference between their pension and full salary were they working full time, and they are entitled to any raises negotiated for the salary supplement as well. They receive this salary differential (normally about $25,000 per person) until the mandatory retirement age, generally at 70. Again, the state allows this payment, but makes the city foot the bill. Curiously, this mandate doesn't apply to police.

Both the disabled firefighters' and police benefit and salary supplements cost the city a total of $2 million per year.

The Taylor Law. This provides for binding arbitration for police and fire unions. As one city administrator said, this does not offer incentive for good bargaining. Rather, it offers incentive for the arbitrator to devise a compromise. However, the compromise almost always leans in the extreme toward the unions without regard to the city's ability to pay, making a mockery of collective bargaining.

Life without the Taylor Law? The city would have saved $22.6 million this year had the police and fire wage increases risen at the same rate as white- and blue-collar employees over the past 10 years. They did not because of the Taylor Law. And the citizens who pay the bill for that largess generally make less in salary and benefits than those who benefit from the awards made possible by the Taylor Law.

This is a delicate matter. There is no price one can put on the services of the men and women who police our streets and battle our fires. Unfortunately, the exorbitantly expensive mandates that the state has foisted on the city mostly deal with the Police and Fire departments. The hard truth is this: At some point the money runs out, even for worthy causes, or is taken from schools or other municipal services. Moreover, if the city runs out of money, firefighters and police officers inevitably will be laid off, reducing the level of safety for citizens.

Of course, it's not only cities that feel the sting of state altruism without a corresponding dose of fiscal responsibility. The Health Care Reform Act is a perfect example. The state decided to provide insurance for uninsured people - a worthy goal - but didn't deem it worthy enough to pay for all of it. It stuck the state's counties with 25 percent of the costs, which certainly will rise into the millions in the years ahead. It gave the county a few million to pay for the first year of the program, but there is no guarantee that future payments will keep up with the expected growth of the benefits.

The cost to the City of Buffalo in state mandates is more than $27 million for 2001-02, according to city officials. Again, it's not a matter of whether these benefits are deserved. It's a question of what a poor city can afford.

That doesn't mean that Buffalo shouldn't do some belt-tightening in other areas, and not just for the short term. But belt tightening won't be enough to prevent fiscal implosion unless the state relieves cities from the obligation to pay for benefits they clearly can't afford.

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