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Niagara Legislature chairman rips Cuomo county tax plan

LOCKPORT -  Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plan to require counties to hold public votes on sharing services with localities as a way to reduce county property taxes is not going to help counties, Niagara County Legislature Chairman W. Keith McNall said.

In his State of the County address at Tuesday night's Legislature meeting, the Republican legislator from Lockport called the Cuomo idea "little more than a distraction from the realities of our county budget's cost drivers."

McNall said the total of the nine largest unfunded state mandates equals 99 percent of this year's county tax levy. If the state paid for those items, county property taxes would almost disappear.

The nine mandates, in decreasing order of cost, are Medicaid; state pension fund contributions; the Safety Net welfare program; preschool special education; probation supervision for criminals; defense attorneys for indigent defendants; the early intervention program for developmentally handicapped children; youth detention; and child welfare and preventive services.

In Niagara County, the local cost of those programs totals almost $76.8 million. The amount to be collected in property taxes this year is just under $77.6 million, according to Public Information Officer Christian W. Peck.

McNall had especially harsh words for Safety Net, the cost of which used to be split 50-50 between the state and the counties. But in 2011, the state changed that to 71 percent for the counties, 29 percent for Albany. Niagara County will spend an estimated $6.7 million on Safety Net this year.

"How many times can you shift the cost of state government to us, and then tell us we need to reduce the costs of local government?" McNall asked.

In a telephone interview, New York State Association of Counties spokesman Mark LaVigne said the Cuomo referendum plan misses the other main reason for high property taxes in New York. "Seventy percent of the property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay in New York State go to the schools. Schools are not part of this program," he said.

McNall said Niagara County already is controlling costs. The 2017 county budget spends $575,000 less than in 2016, a year-to-year reduction "for the first time anyone in this room remembers," McNall said. The county's average full-value tax rate fell by 1.5 percent this year, and at $7.27 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, is at its lowest point in this century.

But McNall told County Manager Richard E. Updegrove that the Legislature wants to see more "accountability" for departments and more cost-cutting.

In particular, McNall said he wants to reduce costs for retired county employees' prescription drugs by shifting them into a Medicare Part D plan that he said could save the county between $800,000 and $1.3 million a year.

He said taking advantage of the federally subsidized drug plan "protects our commitments to our employee bargaining units and simultaneously reduces the costs borne by our taxpayers."

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