It's hard to analyze Jack Doyle's 2004 budget proposal thoroughly. But having spent a good bit of last week reading it, I've reached some conclusions, having nothing to do with whether we ought to up the sales tax to pull ourselves out of the hole we're in.
One conclusion is that at the end of the year, the "actuals" in some important expense and revenue areas will bear little resemblance to those in the budget. It's not just that budget projections are often hard to make; there are just some weird, soft estimates. For instance: Doyle says that next year, at long last, Frontier Field will break even. There's no reason whatsoever to think that the county's subsidies will end. Doyle says that welfare caseloads will drop when they've been going up.
Another conclusion: Taxpayers ought to read their tax bills and watch their pocketbooks next year. Our county property tax may not go up, but other things will. Many of us will see an increase in Pure Waters charges. And then there are a bunch of fee increases. It'll cost a family of two adults and two children $4 more every time it goes go to the zoo. It'll cost youth sports teams $25 more to rent a playing field in a county park for the season. It'll cost $20 more to get a birth certificate, $20 more to get a death certificate. (Curiously, some fees will stay the same: the Republican donor who rents a fenced-off Highland Bowl during the Lilac Festival will pay the same fee he paid in 2003.)
But I'm particularly troubled by the political nature of this thing. The proposed 2004 budget is pure Doyle: mean, divisive, anti-city, anti-poor. Just as disturbing: A lot of other Republican officials, including the majority leader of the county legislature and the Republicans' candidate for county executive, seem to be falling in line.
This budget calls for sacrifice, but the targets of that sacrifice are highly selective: city residents, poor people, mentally ill people. Doyle would fund the school nurse program for Rochester city schools through this year --- and then eliminate funding entirely. For the district's high-poverty population, that will wipe out an important medical service.
He will eliminate funding for the Oasis mental health program, for the Family Resource Network, for Baby Love (which helps pregnant women who aren't getting prenatal medical care). He will eliminate funding for shelter and employment programs at the BadenStreetCenter. He will reduce funding for the Ibero-American Action League and the Urban League, both crucial agencies that serve inner-city residents.
As he announced the cuts, Doyle was snarling, taunting Democratic legislators: I have a list of cuts here, but I'm not gonna show them to you. But your constituents, the people who elected you, won't like these cuts.
This is the behavior we get from the highest elected official in the Community of Monroe. This is government by retribution.
I have not heard a protest from Maggie Brooks, who insists that if she is elected county executive, she'll be nicer, a conciliator. I have not heard Republican Party chair Steve Minarik objecting to Doyle's behavior or to his selective cuts. I have not heard a single elected Republican official objecting.
That being the case, I'm assuming that the Doyle budget is more than a financial document. It's a look at the Republicans' plan for the future of the Community of Monroe.
Doyle's budget also eliminates county funding for downtown police patrol. The D&C quoted Bill Smith, the Republican majority leader in the CountyLegislature, saying that county officials "have to look at those things we are providing to other jurisdictions of government and determine whether we can keep doing them."
Smith knows very well that downtown Rochester houses museums, theaters, sports facilities, and government office buildings that, A) are tax-exempt, and B) are used by people from throughout the Greater Rochester area.
Smith might want to call Rochester Philharmonic board members and ask how they feel about having downtown streets patrolled. And he might want to talk to the business leaders who insist that we've got to work hard to make the region attractive to young adults. Where do young adults go for their nightlife? Downtown. Business leaders say that a lively downtown is an important component of economic development. But Smith wants city residents alone to pay for its police protection.
The D&C tells us that Smith is sorry about the funding cut, but that "the city has its own police department and is responsible for its own police protection."
Left unsaid: Bill Smith represents the Town of Pittsford. The Town of Pittsford chooses notto have --- and pay for --- its own police department. Who polices the Town of Pittsford? The MonroeCounty sheriff's department. Who pays for the sheriff's department? Every taxpayer in MonroeCounty.
Note, please, that city residents are among those taxpayers. City residents pay for the city police department, and they pay for policing the Town of Pittsford. So do the residents of Brighton, Brockport, East Rochester, Fairport, Gates, Greece, Irondequoit, Ogden, and Webster. We're all paying twice: for our own police department and for policing towns like Mendon, Pittsford, Penfield, and Perinton. And no, the sheriff's department does not provide regular service for the city or towns that have their own police.
I'm not trying to be divisive here, but it's hard to stomach this anti-city stuff. Want to know how much it costs all of us to provide those services? More than $14.57 million a year. I've got a counter proposal for Smith: Have the municipalities that use the sheriff's department as their police department pay for that service. And let the rest of us continue to pay for our own.
By all means: Let's take a good look at what the county is "providing to other jurisdictions of government."
I have to admit, I've been astonished that some local business groups have endorsed Maggie Brooks for county exec. Can't these folks add and subtract? Brooks insists that if she's elected, she'll stimulate economic growth and that will let us "keep taxes flat" and not cut programs.
Let me try to explain: MonroeCounty hasn't been exactly bursting with economic activity, but there has been some. Drive out through Pittsford and Mendon and look at all the new houses. Look at the new loft developments downtown. Look at the expansion of Greece Towne Mall a few years ago. Look at the stuff going on around Marketplace Mall.
Unless it has been granted tax breaks by COMIDA, new development pays property taxes. So you'd think that new development would bring more revenue to the county. But that isn't happening.
The reason?Doyle's peculiar obsession with his peculiar definition of "flat taxes." Rather than keep the tax rate flat, he has kept property-tax revenue flat. So when the county got new property taxes from new development, the county simply lowered taxes for other taxpayers, so it wouldn't take in any more revenue. It did this in the face of rising expenses and rising debt.
This is a loopy way to run a county. And now comes Brooks, who says she'll continue to keep the tax revenue flat. And she says she won't cut programs. And she says "economic growth" will insure that we can pay for everything.
It can't happen, folks. Because like Doyle, Brooks doesn't want economic growth to bring in new property-tax revenue.
There's trouble ahead: big trouble. Are you mad yet? The election for county executive is November 4.