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Measuring Monroe 

If you know anything at all about MonroeCounty, you know that we're in trouble.

Sure, there are positive stories here, just like anywhere else. But if current trends continue, we'll soon be unable to pay for the government we have.

Even a mostly upbeat speech from Maggie Brooks can't change that.

So while it's not surprising that Brooks' State of the County address made a positive statement, it leaves as many questions as answers.

Brooks announced the creation of The Enterprise Institute, a program to connect aspiring entrepreneurs with venture capitalists to grow local high-tech jobs. Seed money for the project's first three years will come from the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency. Though it's not what COMIDA usually does, the agency's Executive Director Terry Slaybaugh says "I think the way Industrial Development Agencies are defined under state law, it's clearly within our scope." He expects the program to cost between $100,000 and $150,000 per year, and address what he describes as the "biggest problem" for would-be businesses locally: a lack of start-up capital.

The sections of the speech focusing on COMIDA's day-to-day operations were positively glowing: total number of projects, up 20 percent; investment, up 173 percent; and something she called "projected job creation," up 319 percent. Overall, that means more than 4,000 new jobs and 13,600 retained, she said. But companies applying for COMIDA benefits don't necessarily have to meet their projections to keep getting aid.

And what about Brooks' claim that we lead the Buffalo and Syracuse metro areas in job growth? She was citing US Department of Labor stats, but New York's Labor Department found something different. Just two days after her speech those findings were plastered across the front of the D&C: 17,100 jobs gone from the area in the last five years. Last year, Rochester had the worst job-creation record of any metro area in the state except Elmira.

How can Brooks' administration explain the huge discrepancy between her stats and the state Labor Department's?

"We don't feel they're accurate, the way they collect them," says Slaybaugh of the state's stats. New York bases employment statistics on unemployment, while the feds rely on census data, he says.

To Brooks' credit, she's been straightforward about the county's looming budget problems (a deficit of over $100 million within two years). Yet her speech was notable only for its repetition of previous themes (that Medicaid's the biggest expense) and its paucity of new solutions.

That's apparently because the ideas are still on the way: "I will propose a strategy to fix our long-term financial challenges," she said, "and because the stakes are so high I will present my plan within the next 90 days."

Opposing politicians say that's an improvement over getting a budget shortly before it needs to be adopted. But the secrecy surrounding the Brooks team's own budget brainstorming is puzzling.

And her speech didn't address media reports that her administration is again considering refinancing our tobacco settlement for fiscal salvation. Nor did she mention the Center for Civic Entrepreneurship, the group that's making budget recommendations behind closed doors. The D&C is suing to obtain records of the group's meetings. Friday brought word that Brooks' administration is seeking to have the lawsuit thrown out of court on a technicality.

Perhaps criticism about this secrecy is part of the reason Brooks is now trying to bring the public into the process. In a press conference on Monday, she called for a February public budget workshop with the full legislature (including Democrats, who've complained about being left out of important discussions in the past). She also established an address, hotline, and email address to solicit citizen input on the budget challenge.

Even opposition leaders conceded that they liked parts of Brooks' State of the County speech.

CountyLegislature Minority Leader Carla Palumbo lauded Brooks' focus on rooting out Medicaid provider fraud, saying that's where the real abuse occurs.

And Brooks' announcement that MonroeCommunityHospital would remain open and county-owned, prompted loud and long applause from the audience (and again from the Democrats gathered afterwards to criticize the speech). The hospital --- which loses $4-6 million a year --- houses patients who would often have no other place to turn for treatment.

Yet even that news raises at least an eyebrow or two. Brooks said she'll "create and appoint a permanent Financial Review Board for MonroeCommunityHospital that will recommend cost-savings and operational efficiencies on an on-going basis." Does that mean we weren't already looking for these things?

Brooks' Medicaid Czar (and former budget director) Bill Carpenter says some cost-savings were recommended but if more weren't, it's largely because the institution's future has been up in the air. It's premature to guess how much savings the review board can find.

"There'll be ways to save money that don't have any impact on service," he says, and other ways that may impact service.

For now, it seems the answers to many questions --- if we get answers --- will come in three months, when Brooks releases her long-term budget plan. We can't wait.

Think you've got a really great idea for how to solve the county's budget problems? It's probably that extra martini you allowed yourself last night. Still convinced? Call 585.753.1035, email citizenbudgetinitiative@monroecounty.gov, or snail-mail it to Citizen Budget Initiative, PO Box 14001Rochester, N.Y.14614.

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