Last week, in a brief speech to the CountyLegislature's Ways and Means Committee, County Executive Maggie Brooks pretty much admitted what some observers had already guessed: The numbers on which the county's 2005 budget was put together were too optimistic.
Brooks was updating her budget projections, based on the county's First Quarter Key Indicator Report. This early in the game, that assessment is just a guess, too. But the report puts the county anywhere from $7 million in the hole by the end of the year (best case) to $13.8 million (worst case). There is one small bright spot: Despite projections for a large deficit last year, MonroeCounty ended 2004 with a slim surplus.
The news attracted the attention of former County Legislator Jay Ricci (now in Connecticut). Ricci's last act before leaving town was to apply his business skills to analyzing the 2005 budget. He predicted a $15-$25 million shortfall.
"It looks like the projections that I made were pretty accurate," he says.
Ricci suggests that the budget is off target because of flawed aid estimates. "They've consistently overestimated the revenue they're getting from the state and federal governments," he says.
Brooks explains the projected deficit by pointing out that Upstate New York's weak economy has meant higher than expected social-service caseloads.
"Mandated social-service spending, driven primarily by increased caseload, is entirely responsible for this deficit forecast," she told the lej. Brooks' main culprit? Medicaid.
In a press conference immediately following the address, Brooks repeated the complaint that New York's version of Medicaid "is a Cadillac program."
"We need to right-size it," she said, adding, "We don't want to deny anyone in need."
But no one, Brooks included, knows how to fulfill both goals. Both she and the liberal activist group Metro Justice have called Governor Pataki's cap on the amount counties must shell out for the program a "Band-aid" that won't address the system's long-term problems. Neither Brooks nor Metro Justice has offered an idea that would do that.
Asked what ideas she or any other elected official had to offer, Brooks replied: "We don't; we're going to compile them."
That's a reference to a mini-conference of officials from other upstate counties she's convening this week to brainstorm such ideas. We wish them the best of luck. With medical costs continuing to soar and the frail upstate economy keeping the rolls of the uninsured high, they'll need it.
--- Krestia DeGeorge
Insurance companies can't use race as a factor when they set rates for homeowners insurance. That's what the law says.
But the authors of a new report say the practice may be going on in Rochester and MonroeCounty anyway.
Last week, the Public Interest Law Office of Rochester published the results of an eight-month study titled "The Homeowners Insurance Gap." The survey suggests that two primary factors driving the cost of home insurance here are the race of the people applying for that insurance and the neighborhood where their house is located.
The report is a 64-page analysis of data on homeowners-insurance purchasing. Much of the data came from testers --- pairs of white and minority homeowners with similar socio-economic backgrounds who tried to buy insurance for similar homes. What the study found is that minorities, and residents of predominantly minority neighborhoods, paid higher rates for less coverage.
An industry representative told the Democrat and Chronicle that it's likely that premiums are higher in those neighborhoods because more claims are filed there. Attorney and study co-author Ruhi Maker doesn't buy that explanation, but she says she can't refute it, either --- at least, not yet. The project studied only 50 people, and a 50-person study, says Maker, is "not statistically significant."
Officials at PILOR hope to call enough attention to the issue to get state funding for more testing. The ultimate goal, though, is to get New York to pass disclosure laws. Those laws, which are already on the books in several states, require insurance companies to report what policies they're writing and in which communities. The reports are usually broken down by ZIP code or census tract, which helps state officials zero in on areas where race might be illegally used to raise the cost of homeowners insurance.
You can view the entire report online at http://www.pilor.org.
--- Krestia DeGeorge
The rather subdued fanfare surrounding ribbon cutting ceremonies for the new Montage Grille belied how great this recently reopened nightclub actually looks. A new back bar has been added, along with additional seating areas that offer excellent views of the new stage without cramping the ample dance floor. There's more stuff in the new and improved joint, and yet somehow it looks bigger.
The Montage Grille will offer live entertainment virtually every night. And thanks Montage entertainment booker Cat Bauer, some way-cool talent (the kind folks have always associated with The Montage) is headed our way. In the coming weeks, look for acts like Mark Hummel, David "Fathead" Newman, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, and Candye Kane. And that's not to mention many of the Jazz Fest performers. More info's available at www.montagegrille.com.
--- Frank De Blase