A few years ago, groups of grassroots organizations began to sprout up all over Westchester to address the issue of rising taxes. About two years ago, after reading about other like-minded people in the county, the disparate groups banded together to form "Best4NY," an organization that touts itself as striving for "Better Education and Smarter Taxation in New York."
"I moved to Chappaqua specifically for the schools," said Jim McCauley, one of the founders of Best4NY. "But taxes have doubled over the last decade. This is not a slash and burn organization; we're looking to start a dialogue that will push for change."
Whether their cause is attainable is yet to be seen—but local school and government officials answer questions about rising taxes every day, and they too are grappling with how to solve the pressing issue.
On Tuesday, a panel of local government officials, a school board member and a Westchester County labor relations attorney met in Hastings to address how unfunded state mandates are affecting their abilities to keep budgets from rising too quickly and proposed solutions to the problems—they feel—are created by mandated costs that are out of their control.
Unfunded mandates are state/national government-imposed regulations that require actions by state or local governments or public schools, without providing funds to pay for their completion.
Some of the most taxing are: salary increases and pension contributions for public employees and the ever-increasing cost of health insurance for public workers. School officials also complain that they've been hit with a number of unfunded mandates recently that drive up school taxes.
One of the major themes of the discussion was the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which keeps public employers (school boards, local governments) from changing any provision of an expired labor contract until a new agreement is reached. This can lead to an impasse in negotiations, assuring that public employees needn't make any concessions, panelists said,—even when the economy is poor and some taxpayers are out of work or living without raises or bonuses.
The discussion Tuesday focused on how mandates obstruct contract negotiations between local governments and school boards and the public employees who work for them.
According to panelist and Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, "When negotiations go to arbitration, the workers' salaries are often settled at a four percent raise. That's why we try to settle the contracts without having to take that step.
But even Feiner—who is a self-proclaimed liberal—said that in order to stay within the state-mandated two percent tax cap he needed to lay off two workers.
"I had nightmares about it."
Many teachers disagree with attempts to repeal or change the Triborough Amendment.
"There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Triborough Amendment dictates," said Nate Morgan, president of the Hastings Teachers' Association. "Triborough only ensures that the terms of a contract remain in place - which means if a contract expires that employer cannot unilaterally decrease compensation packages."
He added that teachers agree with the panelists and anti-public education political action groups like Best4NY and UnshackleUpstate, that increases to the compensation packages should be controlled locally and the current laws provide for that. But he added:
"It seems that the panelists are actually asking for an additional mandate that would tip the collective bargaining process in favor of the employer and only the employer. They are basically asking the state to negotiate local contracts for them. We are against the state controlling local collective bargaining and so are they (panelist, Best4NY, UnshackleUpstate,etc.), or that is at least what they claim."
Vincent Toomey, a Westchester County labor relations attorney, said he saw a positive shift in the arbitration process.
"Recently arbitrators have begun to listen to public employers and their abilities to pay," he said. "Analysis shows that the contract increases have gone down precipitously in the last two years."
He added that the unions have been more receptive to settling once they've seen the data to show how much their demands would affect taxpayers.
Aside from the heaviest-hitting mandates, Hastings Trustee Niki Armacost pointed out that there are hidden ones as well.
"A huge problem in Hastings is the increased number of calls our police department has made to the ," she said. "Because many state-mandated schools, like Graham and , are being shut down, we've seen a shift in the population at our local [schools for children and teens who are in the human services system or have had run-ins with the law]."
Armacost said that calls from the Graham School represented 35 percent of the total calls the local police received, even though the Graham School is tax exempt, and the state doesn't help support the additional policing it now needs.
"This will make it harder to negotiate with the police force going forward; they may ask for an additional officer because of the rise in calls, and we'll have a harder time arguing."
Schools also have recently had to comply with a number of unfunded state mandates, said Hastings school board member Eileen Baecher. "How often we have to bring in auditors, how we report test results and the cost of Special Ed. are huge," she said. And newer mandates like teacher and administrator evaluations [APPR] and re-vamping curricula to conform with the Common Core Standards must also be factored into the budget.
But Baecher, like her fellow panelists came back to contract negotiations, bringing up another point.
"Unions look to other districts to see what they're doing," she said. "They won't settle on numbers that are too far from the numbers other districts in the area settle at. If we don't accept, there's an impasse."
She also cited the Triborough Amendment as a constant source of concern for school board members.
"The longer you go without a new contract, the longer unions will receive salaries and step increases that are unsustainable for the district," she said.
Once laying out the problem, panelists suggested possible solutions:
- Get rid of arbitration panels and keep negotiations between governments and public employees.
- Keep overtime out of accruing pensions, so that soon-to-be retirees don't try to get more overtime in their last few years in order to have a greater pension.
- Cap union salary increases at 2 percent because of the 2 percent tax levy cap on budgets.
- Have non-profit organizations pay taxes.
- Reform to the Triborough Amendment and pension reform (require employees to contribute more.)
- Advocate for the state to repeal some mandates on schools or supply more funds.
- Advocate for no more mandates going further.
Do you think these solutions are tenable? Do you know of any other solutions? Post your answers to these questions in the comments section.