How bad do things have to get in what we used to call The Community of Monroe? Do only half a dozen county legislators have the guts to do the right thing?
Next week, the Lej will vote on Jack Doyle's proposed budget. That budget will ramp up the cuts we've already begun to experience --- and, of course, there'll be no tax increase.
The majority of Republican legislators think that's fine, apparently. But last week, three Republicans (George Wiedemer, Ray Santirocco, and Peter McCann), joined by three Democrats (José Cruz, Carla Palumbo, and Lynda Garner Goldstein), released a bipartisan budget proposal. They want to raise the property-tax rate by a modest 3.77 percent, to restore some of Doyle's cuts. That would raise an additional $10.6 million, they say. In addition, by restoring county funding to agencies that receive federal and state matching funds, as much as $15 million in services would be restored.
This week, the remaining legislature Democrats will present their own budget plan. They won't say whether it will include a tax increase, but they do say they want to protect some of the services hit by Doyle's budget. If the Dems don't call for raising taxes, obviously, they'll suggest cuts in other areas.
So legislators will have three proposals to choose from: Doyle's, the bipartisan group's, and the Democrats'.
I haven't seen the Dems' proposal; they don't plan to release it until November 7. But no matter how great their plan is, there's not a bat's chance that enough Republicans will sign on to get it passed. Is that ugly partisan politics? Sure. It's also the world we live in right now.
That leaves the bipartisan proposal. Democratic leader Stephanie Aldersley insists that it's not bipartisan at all. It is, she says, a "third-party proposal." Most of the six legislators who proposed it are part of the "Independence Caucus" --- as in, Independence Party. (Democrat Lynda Garner Goldstein says she's not an Indy Caucus member but thinks the proposal's a good one.)
The Indy proposal won't pass either, of course --- unless a lot of Democrats and Republicans bolt their caucuses. The Indy Six will have to pick up at least nine more votes. Worse, Republican leader Bill Smith says he believes Doyle would veto a tax increase. If so, the Indy Six would need 12 more votes, not nine, to override that veto. (Democrat Mitch Rowe has told City that he would also support a tax increase of about the amount the Indy caucus proposes.)
Aldersley says the Indy Six are "grandstanding." They have done nothing to push for more support, she says. On Friday, three days after the Indy caucus released its proposal, Democrat-Indy José Cruz agreed that the group hadn't yet contacted Aldersley. "The [Democratic] caucus has copies of the specific information," he told City's Chris Busby. "The idea is, we're going to follow it up. That's the next logical step."
That probably won't matter; Aldersley's not about to endorse the Indy plan. It does not, she says, "restore cuts to the most critical health and human services." The Democrats' plan, she says, "will do a better job of that."
Aldersley also says the Indy Six proposal is primarily "a slush fund." She's referring to two parts of their plan:
1) The Indy legislators want to build a $1.5 million surplus into the county budget. Currently, they say, the county has almost no surplus, leaving it vulnerable to "unforeseen events." And, they say, with no surplus budgeted, the county's credit rating is likely to drop, which means it'll have to pay more to borrow money.
2) The Indy legislators want to set aside $4.5 million to help protect social-service programs during the Department of Social Services reorganization that Doyle plans. Doyle says the reorganization will save $30 million, but the Indy legislators are skeptical. If the savings are less than that, Doyle will have to find something else to cut.
The Indy Six would use the rest of the revenue increase to partially restore a variety of Doyle cuts. Among the beneficiaries: foster-care preventive services, mental-health services, public-health services, homeless services, Legal Aid, Lifeline, the library system, the Museum and Science Center, the probation department, and county road maintenance.
Is the bipartisan/Indy proposal perfect? No. But it is a huge step forward. We now have six county legislators, including three Republicans, behaving responsibly and calling for a tax increase. We have three Republicans willing to resist a powerful party leader on an important issue.
And we have, wonder of wonders, a bipartisan effort. While Aldersley disagrees, if this isn't a bipartisan effort, I don't know what one looks like. And note that the Democrats complain frequently that Republicans won't let any of their proposals see the light of day. Now the Dems are dismissing a "third-party" proposal.
The Democratic leadership, apparently, would rather let the Republican majority pass the Doyle budget --- and then let it blow up in the Republicans' faces. Doyle's budget is based on some very shaky assumptions. I'd be willing to bet that Monroe County's fiscal problem will turn out to be a lot worse than we've been told. That means the county, under Doyle's direction, will move deeper and deeper into crisis.
If I were a Democrat in the Legislature, maybe I'd find it tempting to let the Doyle budget pass. Doyle got us into this, after all. But while it might be fun for Democrats to watch the Doyle administration implode in its budget mess, the people who'll be hurt most in the resulting crisis will be the residents of Monroe County. And passing a bipartisan plan wouldn't make Doyle look good.
Republican Ray Santirocco says he doesn't think the bipartisan proposal "will pass the legislature intact." "There'll be compromises, there will be massaging, there will be tweaking," he says. But, he adds, "I'm confident we will pass some sort of package other than what the executive has proposed."
Can the Indy Caucus get enough votes to pass a tax increase? Theoretically, plenty of Democrats should embrace the plan. As Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson noted last week, the Doyle cuts disproportionately hurt the city and city residents. And 10 of the 13 Democrats in the County Legislature represent city districts.
But Democrats aren't likely to lead the charge for a tax increase. They see a trap. "My own belief," says Democratic Party Chair Ted O'Brien, "is that the Republicans are going to have to take the initiative on it." It'll take a bipartisan effort of some sort to get a "sensible tax policy," says O'Brien, and the Indy caucus "may be able to serve as some kind of an initial facilitator." But, he says, more Republicans will have to embrace a tax increase, to give Democrats some protection.
"You look at Fred Amato's race this year for the Assembly," says O'Brien, "and they're bringing out the fact he voted to increase taxes in 1987. It's 15 years ago, and he's still taking shots for it. So I think we need to have some cover there to do the right thing. That's going to require significant participation by Republican legislators."
Republicans Santirocco, Wiedemer, and McCann, then, will have to get more Republicans on board. And some non-Indy Democrats will have to break rank and support the bipartisan plan.
Maybe there's not a bat's chance that'll happen. But some day, the Democrats and Republicans in this community have got to find ways to work together. That's what the community needs. And it's what the community wants.
(Thanks to Chris Busby for assistance on this article.)