ALBANY -- Saying local governments do not want to cut costs, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday proposed forcing them to put efficiency plans on the ballot in November for voters to decide.
Cuomo has railed against what he claims is duplicity in local governments, charging that the state has cut costs but local leaders haven't.
On Tuesday, he stepped up his fight, proposing that county executives be required to develop plans to cut property taxes and put the plans to a public vote -- a bid to make the changes binding.
Municipalities "don’t even want to do it. They would rather keep to themselves, and you have your own government," Cuomo charged during his regional State of the State address at SUNY Purchase in Westchester County.
"I understand the instinct, but we cannot afford it any longer."
Fighting local governments
Cuomo has long derided the thousands of local governments in New York, pointing to them as the reason why the state has among the highest property taxes in the nation.
In 2011, he got the state Legislature to agree to a property-tax cap, and since then the state has provided property-tax rebate checks to homeowners whose local governments and schools stayed under the cap and developed efficiency plans.
But those efficiency plans in 2015 weren't binding. Now the Democratic governor wants to force counties and municipalities to cut their costs.
"I’ve tried every way that I can do it. I am telling you, unless the citizens get into the game, it’s not going to change," Cuomo continued.
"And the opposition to this is going to be fierce because the entire political class is going to oppose it."
Indeed, the proposal -- which would need state legislative approval -- will stoke the fight between Cuomo and local governments over the need for relief from unfunded state mandates.
Just last month, Cuomo angered local leaders by vetoing a bill that would have had the state pick up the cost for legal defense for the poor.
Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, a Republican, ripped Cuomo's plans after attending the speech.
"Thanks for the lecture, Governor," Molinaro, a potential gubernatorial candidate next year, said in a statement. "Let us know when you are ready to get to work."
Molinaro said Cuomo's proposal was similar to "fake news," saying no county has done more to share services and no state puts more burden on its local governments.
He said 70 percent of the county budget funds state-mandated programs.
"There was a lot of talk in the last election about fake news, and what we heard in today's lecture from Governor Cuomo was clearly little more than a slick propaganda effort designed to mislead voters on what really accounts for high local property taxes," Molinaro continued.
Michael Kaplowitz, chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, said Cuomo's speech was full of vision but lacked details.
"It was a solid C effort," he said. "I give him a passing grade but barely."
In his criticism of New York's high property taxes, Cuomo failed to mention the biggest driver of them, Kaplowitz said: the schools.
"It's schools. There's 70 percent of your budget. He just missed it," Kaplowitz, a Democrat, said.
Tax cap, tax freeze
Cuomo said the state has taken steps to lower income taxes, but New Yorkers pay 2.5 times more in property taxes than they do in income taxes.
His office, citing statistics from the Tax Foundation, pointed out that Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties pay among the highest property taxes in the nation.
Some upstate counties, including Wayne and Monroe, pay the highest property taxes compared to home values.
While the tax cap and the "tax-freeze" checks over the past three years have saved taxpayers about $17 billion if taxes grew unchecked, more needs to be done, Cuomo urged.
He also said the state has undertaken significant mandate relief, such as assuming a $3.7 billion cost in the growth in Medicaid expenses from counties, as well as a new pension tier for new employees.
"The cap has been very helpful, but we don’t just want to slow growth, we want to reduce the number," Cuomo said.
His proposal would require the county's chief executive, such as a county executive or county manger, to get public input on ways to cut costs.
Then the county would develop a proposal that "must demonstrate real, recurring savings in costs and not simply shift burdens to other taxpayers."
Draft plans would need to be submitted by Aug. 1 to the county legislative body, which would then have 45 days to review it.
They could make changes to the plan or leave it alone, but either way it would go to voters in November.
If the plan was rejected by voters, the county government would have to put a new proposal on the ballot in November 2018.
White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach said Cuomo's desire for local governments to work together is something municipalities have always been doing.
"I will meet with anybody, any time," he said, noting that he sat in the same row as the Yonkers and New Rochelle mayors for the speech. "We are working together."
Roach said perhaps legislation in Albany could help local governments share services more effectively.
Includes reporting by Journal News staff writer Matt Spillane.