It may not be the purest of all possible equations, but neither is it entirely unfair. In the unforgiving mathematics of this year's Erie County budget debate, libraries have come to equal Medicaid.
There's more to it than that, of course, but with state mandated Medicaid costs draining the entire county tax levy, County Executive Joel Giambra has decided to force the issue: Facing an estimated budget gap of $130 million, Giambra said he won't raise property taxes to subsidize the state's buck-passing, putting virtually every non-mandated service, including libraries, at risk.
Critics, especially those in the spendthrift State Legislature, may complain that Giambra mismanaged the county to reach this point, but they ignore this telling fact: Over the previous two budget years, Erie County was the only one in the state that did not raise its property tax rate.
Increases in many other counties were in the double digits, and a large part of the reason is the state's Medicaid program, which is the nation's most generous and which Albany has little reason to control, since it forces counties to pick up half the nonfederal cost. That cost is now undermining every other program that Erie County residents value, including its libraries.
Other factors are in play, to be sure, and among them is that Erie County has more branch libraries per capita that it can reasonably afford. A previous study showed that the county system ranked 27th nationally in the number of people served and ninth in the number of branches.
Giambra's self-described "scorched Earth" budget could close up to 50 libraries, an outcome no one wants to see. But unless New Yorkers intend to give state leaders an indefinite pass, this argument has to come some time, and no time is better than now, when reform pressures are greater than they have been in decades. If taxpayers simply pressure Giambra or county legislators to raise property taxes to fund their favorite services, they become enablers to the addicts in Albany.
Giambra is pressing for an increase in the Erie County sales tax to cover the deficit. Because the state would have to approve that request, it would divert some of the responsibility for rising costs to Albany, where it belongs.
Better still would be for the state to get serious about reforming the undemocratic legislative rules that help to drive up public costs, and then turn its attention to the runaway Medicaid program, itself. If Albany would merely find the stomach to bring the program in line with the national average, and then pay all of the nonfederal cost for the program it imposes, New York would be a saner place to live.