On Tuesday, the Onondaga County Legislature unanimously passed a plan to distribute the revenues from sales tax collected in the county over the next decade. The key point–in a era when sales tax receipts have been dwindling, Onondaga County and the city will maintain their levels of revenue by phasing out the distributions usually made to villages, towns and school districts.
As a city resident, accustomed to the disdain and outright hostility that the suburban members of the Legislature hold for the city, its government and its people, I was somewhat shocked to see a unanimous vote on a plan that essentially holds the city whole. The vote was even more surprising in light of the original response of Legislature Chair James Rhinehart, who drafted a typical “gut-the-city” proposal that would have given tax cuts to suburbanites and forced the city to raise property taxes by an additional 16% over the current proposed increase of 5%.
The pressure placed on Rhinehart must have been intense. The city had an ally in our state delegation, who not so subtly threatened to redirect all of the additional 1% sales tax that NY State authorized the County to collect to the city, if Mayor Miner felt compelled to walk away from the tax agreement negotiations. Then, the County’s power structure also weighed in–newspaper editorial, letters from the Chamber of Commerce, the University etc.–all backing the Miner/Mahoney plan.
The resulting unanimous vote stuck largely to the Miner/Mahoney blueprint.
The plan will generate a lot of discussion over the next decade about services in the County–large towns like Geddes and Salina are going to find it hard to provide the type of police and fire coverage that the County’s money helped them to provide.
This was Onondaga County’s idea all along. The towns have been resistant to the idea of consolidation. Now they are going to have to explore these ideas or face angry taxpayers wondering why their tax bills are skyrocketing. Expect to see a shifting landscape out in the County over the next ten years: fewer independent villages, larger towns collaborating to lower costs–the kind of discussion that never would have gotten off the ground without the discipline and seriousness of purpose that potential bankruptcy forces on politicians. In the words of Elvis Costello: “clowntime is over.”
The tendency in the suburbs will be to blame the city for this change in the status quo. Yet, the city isn’t really getting any more money than usual. The difference is that the County government is keeping much more of the money it collects from sales tax, in order to deliver many of the services mandated by the state and to pay the whopping huge bill for its unionized work force and their pension costs.
Both the city and county face a structural deficit in the costs of its services, the mandates placed upon them by the state and the ticking time bomb of retiree pension costs. For years, this deficit has been papered over by massive transfer payments from Albany. The collapse of the national economy, Wall Street chaos and the state budget deficit means a foreseeable future of reductions in assistance from Albany. This sales tax agreement sees the city and county taking their first halting steps into a dark and unknowable future. Nothing can be the same and a metro-wide consolidation is probably the only real long-term solution.
I am (as always) indebted to Ellen over at NYCO’s Blog for helping to crystallize my thinking on this issue. She has a very interesting post up on this issue right now–check it out. I’ll be commenting there as well.