ALBANY – For local governments across New York, it’s been a longtime demon they just can’t shake: state-imposed mandates requiring them to offer some kind of government service but without Albany paying the tab.
And they come while the state cut or withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in payments for localities that were promised at the start of the fiscal year on April 1.
Further, they come when localities are on the front lines of responding to the Covid pandemic.
It is the counties spearheading a sizable portion of Covid testing, isolation and contact tracing efforts. It’s the hundreds of school districts that are installing new remote learning technologies, much of it at their expense, or purchasing new supplies and hiring new staff to try to keep classrooms as sanitized as possible.
And it’s local governments, through police or other law enforcement agencies, being told by Albany to step up efforts to ensure state Covid rules are followed everywhere from restaurants to bowling alleys to public transit.
Many of the Covid-related mandates are necessary to try to control the pandemic, officials agree. But localities are asking a simple question: How are they supposed to afford all of these edicts from Albany?
“Opening schools safely is expensive," said Andrew Van Alstyne, director of education and research at the Association of School Business Officials of New York.
The openings are coming shortly after the Cuomo administration withheld several hundred million dollars in expected state aid to some schools. All schools are now bracing for a possible 20% state aid cut in the state aid set to flow later this month.
“The expectation that school districts can open safely while having unprecedented state aid cuts is a nightmare scenario,’’ Van Alstyne said.
The effects right now are real, and officials across the range of local governments in New York sound even more worried about the future considering the plight of a state economy that many experts say will take years to fully recover.
“It’s getting very tense for local government officials to get through this year and, to be honest, next year is even worse," said Dave Lucas, director of finance and intergovernmental affairs at the New York State Association of Counties.
Some localities have furloughed or laid off workers, a step the state has not yet taken. Some have shifted workers away from their usual duties to help with Covid response efforts, meaning some otherwise normal functions of local governments have been halted. Some are delaying maintenance on equipment, from trucks to mulching equipment at transfer stations to water infrastructure work. Some road improvement projects have been delayed.
It means already crumbling infrastructure will become even more expensive in the future to fix when money is available. Think of it like ignoring routine maintenance on your home, which creates bigger problems down the road.
Some localities are issuing bonds to pay for operating expenses. Some are sweeping money out of reserve funds.
For some schools, the fiscal situation is dire. Some schools that decided to go remote-only teaching for now cited state aid cuts for their decisions. The low-income school district of Schenectady let go 400 staffers just over a week ago, including 100 teachers.
“School districts are being boxed into a financial corner to keep staff hired, run school programs and provide students the best experience possible under these trying times with Covid-19. Tough financial decisions are being made on a daily basis by school boards and district superintendents. We again ask our political leaders to provide the necessary funding so our kids and staff don’t have to pay the price for funding decisions not being made," said Al Marlin, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.
New school mandates
Schools have faced an array of mandates or orders from Albany this year.
The state, for instance, told all school districts to pay for the mailing costs of ballots sent to residents for the budget votes in June, which ended up hitting districts with a tab nearly four times the costs of the in-person voting held in 2019, according to the school business officials’ association.
The state’s push that every school district be prepared to go to remote learning has meant large technology purchases, from laptops for students to broadband improvements to purchases of cameras to record teachers doing remote instruction. Some costs will be covered by the state, some through special federal aid approved last spring. But districts still have to fund portions of the technology purchases from local property tax charges.
The state required schools to provide child care for essential workers during the Covid state of emergency, such as a health care worker whose child attends a local public school. They have been ordered by Cuomo to provide daily updates on Covid positive tests within school districts, even though schools are not required to test, for instance, any students.
Districts say their costs are rising for bus transportation to meet state social distancing orders, and school days are being disrupted with everything from fewer hours of in-person instruction time to buses running at lower capacity. Additionally, the state Education Department recently made clear that schools that decide to be fully remote still have to pay to transport children within their district who attend private schools that have reopened. The state helps fund transportation costs, but not fully.
The Cuomo administration noted that the state, through a bond act, has provided $2 billion to schools for technology and infrastructure improvements, including $108 million to Erie County and $56 million for Buffalo. Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for Cuomo’s budget division, also said the state several years ago took over what totals $4 billion in annual Medicaid costs that would have otherwise been paid for by counties.
“Local governments have always been responsible for the enforcement of health codes to keep people safe from everything from infections to food poisoning. The public needs this protection by their local governments now more than ever, and everyone from the state to the village has to do more with less," he said. The Cuomo spokesman said Washington has financially undercut Covid efforts in New York and that “we all need to keep our focus on getting federal funding from Washington.”
New mandates on localities
Not all the new mandates in 2020 on localities are directly related to Covid.
A new mandate from Albany this year that counties fully pay for the costs of mental competency exams for people facing criminal trials will cost Erie County an additional $1.9 million annually, said Peter Anderson, a spokesman for Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.
Another one: A fiscally distressed health care funding pool will require Erie County to pay about $4.3 million in annual sales tax revenues to local hospitals, Anderson said. He noted costs for both mandates could rise in the years ahead.
Cuomo also this summer signed into law a bill preventing public utilities and municipalities from turning off water, phone, electric, gas and steam services to residents who can’t pay their bills. The order extends for six months after the Covid-19 pandemic’s state of emergency is declared ended for residents who had a “change in financial circumstances” due to the virus.
Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York State Conference of Mayors, which represents 575 city and village governments, said the pandemic operations plan mandate and the utility cut-off restriction both fall “under the category of well-intended” but were written in a way “that imposes unnecessary obligations on fiscally strapped local governments.”
“Local government is the government closest to the people. This fact has been proven more clearly than ever over the course of the past six months, as municipal officials have been in the forefront of fighting Covid-19 and restoring economic opportunity in New York. Local governments need the state to be a partner and provide cities and villages with resources, not more mandates," Baynes said.
Uncertainty drags on
As Cuomo waits to make key budget decisions until the dust clears on whether Washington will provide New York and other states with a big fiscal bailout, localities have been left in a state of chaos with their own fiscal year, in the case of counties, ending in less than four months.
County health responses to Covid, such as PPE purchases, will be partly reimbursed by Washington. But the funding stream is also uncertain since a Covid relief pot is also being tapped to help fund a temporary $300 additional weekly unemployment benefit to jobless Americans. Also, localities have to provide a 25% match for certain Covid federal emergency funding.
County officials note that, for instance, public health oversight of the reopening of restaurants, indoor gyms and colleges has fallen to counties. The 30 counties with community colleges are seeing new costs they have never experienced.
Counties, too, have had to scramble in other ways. For example, county-run senior meal programs – often done in congregate settings – have largely shifted to mobile, meals-on-wheels efforts. It has forced a triage-like approach shifting government workers from one completely different job title to become part of the senior meals’ programs.
The uncertainty of the whole situation is keeping many local government officials up at night. The federal government has not decided its path for future bailout money so the state has not decided how deeply it might cut those on the rung below: local governments.
The state’s criminal justice services offices, for instance, recently wrote those who provide anti-crime services on behalf of the state that they should not count on receiving the same level of funding as in the past. Also, it could be until the end of September before such things are known, a timetable local officials say is already late.
Still, as local tax revenues drop along with state aid payments, additional services driven by Covid are on the rise. A food program for low-income New Yorkers normally sees 130 applications weekly in Albany County, whose seat of government is a block from the state Capitol. Last week, it had 800 applications, according to Mark LaVigne, deputy director at the association representing counties.