Speeches given by County Executive Maggie Brooks are typically precise and business-like, so last night's State of the County address, Brooks' 10th, was a wild ride by comparison, featuring a selfie with a Berenstain Bear, a mouthy Belgian Malinois (a canine officer), and a splash of audience participation.
Brooks' tone was also a little sharper than usual (her speech is below). The county executive aggressively defended the county's use of tax incentives to attract and retain businesses; she blamed state mandated spending for fueling local property taxes. (Brooks' also issued an ultimatum to the developer
of the troubled Medley Centre project in Irondequoit.)
Brooks also announced a new Office of Public-Private Accountability. She said the office will "review any agreement or contract which co-mingles public and private resources, and will provide oversight to any entity engaged in a public-private partnership with the county." In simpler terms, the office will be responsible for reviewing all county contracts, including those with nonprofit agencies and private companies. Brooks said the county will conduct a national search for the office's leader.
The office appears to be the county executive's response to recent scandals involving local development corporations, which are quasi-governmental nonprofits formed for specific purposes. The county uses LDC's to, for example, operate a plant that provides power and steam for Monroe Community Hospital and Monroe Community College, provide information technology equipment, operate the Civic Center Garage, and to replace the public safety communications infrastructure.
Four people, including Brooks' husband, face charges
as the result of an Attorney General's Office probe into two of the county's LDC's: Upstate Telecommunications Corporation and Monroe Safety and Security Systems. The defendants are all accused of bid-rigging. The attorney for Robert Weisner, Brook's husband, has asked a judge to dismiss the charges against Weisner.
Democratic Minority Leader Carrie Andrews is skeptical of the new office. She says the office's charge sounds similar to the duties of the county's existing, and currently vacant, internal auditor position. Any accountability office should report to the Legislature, she says, and not to the administration.
Brooks briefly defended the LDC's in her speech, which she described as public-private partnerships.
"Working together we can reduce costs and improve services," she said. "But it’s critical that we don’t allow concerns about new non-traditional forms of government service delivery to distract from the important work being done and the results being achieved."
Brooks also said that the county's tax incentive programs have helped create or retain 100,000 jobs since she took office in 2004. She said the success is due to collaborative efforts to target industries such as optics, alternative energy, health care, and food and beverage manufacturing. But the tax incentives, she said, play a vital role.
"Government investments level the playing field in a state where there are far too many barriers to doing business, far too many regulations on employers, and far too much red tape tying-up local jobs," Brooks said. "It’s Monroe County’s job to create an environment that helps local employers grow, expand, and overcome those challenges."
Under Governor Cuomo's property tax freeze plan, property owners would be entitled to tax credits if their local governments, including counties, stay within the state's existing property tax cap and make efforts to consolidate governments or services. Brooks said local governments aren't the reason New York property taxes are high — blaming, instead, unfunded state mandates.
She said the state should take the $1.5 billion set aside for the tax credits and use it to cut counties' Medicaid obligations.
"If Albany were to join us instead of fighting us, we could achieve real property tax reform through real mandate relief," Brooks said. "Fix the mandates and you fix New York’s property tax problem."
Brooks State of the County by jmouleatcity