What’s Mine Is Mine And What’s Yours Is Open To Negotiation

Last night, I went to the Common Council’s public hearing on the city’s proposed 2008-09 budget. Unlike some hearings in past years, there were few people in attendance (perhaps a dozen) and the whole thing wrapped up in about a half hour.

However, the tenor of the meeting remains the same. People from the school district and various groups affiliated with teachers and parents of schoolchildren came to ask the city to spend more money on the school district.

The appeals came in two forms. The more savvy or connected speakers hewed to the school district’s party line and asked for a specific amount–$1.2 million. The less discriminating came and asked the city to fund the school district “fully.” Both groups alluded to the undeniable truth about the students in the city school district–students in abject poverty, many with little fluency in English, cost the district more to educate than do affluent children from the suburbs. When you start from so far behind, it takes more effort and more investment to catch up.

Unfortunately, no one speaking up for the school district has even an elementary grasp of the city’s economic structure and many speakers hold a thinly-veiled contempt for the city. The speakers constantly allude to the historic underfunding of the school district by Albany, lumping the city into the mix as an unindicted co-conspirator, questioning the Mayor and the Council’s commitment to our children.

Syracuse is a city where twice the amount of the local tax levy goes to the school district than to all other city services combined. Yet speakers for the school district seem to believe that the city is holding out on the schools, withholding money. The reality is that the city’s tax levy is now a small percentage of the both the city’s budget and the school district’s budget. The city and schools rely on transfer payments from Albany to survive. In fact, the structural deficits faced by both bodies–in the form of contracts with their unionized work forces–and the pensions, health care and other benefits that go along with those contracts–are insoluble without massive infusions of state aid.

Therefore, it is rather unseemly to go before the Council to beg for an additional $1 million, threatening to cut jobs if your budget isn’t increased by less than half a percentage point–particularly given the very large increase of state aid received this budget year. Is the school district so mismanaged that over 70 jobs are left to dangle in the wind unless an additional 0.3 % is added to the school budget? (An addition that was added at the very last meeting of the school board’s discussion of their budget?)

At least no one got up and asked the Council to please raise my taxes and give the money to the school district. Do these people even understand basic economics? Do they think that these costs are only born by those with the ability to pay? If the city raises its property taxes, it will fall disproportionally on the poorest neighborhoods and those least able to afford increases. The elderly on fixed incomes. Poor tenants paying higher rents. The poor students that you claim to care so much for will just have another stone thrown into their sinking boat.

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