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Mayors Testify at Budget Hearing

Mayors from across the state came to the Capitol to testify to a joint legislative fiscal committee on Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget. While New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg went out of his way to offer support to the governor and for his budget plan, Mayors of upstate cities, including Rochester Mayor Tom Richards,  begged for a bail out.

Traditionally, the legislative hearing on the governor’s aid to localities budget has been called Tin Cup day, as a procession of mayors ask the legislature to add money for their cities to the governor’s budget. But Mayor Bloomberg told the joint legislative fiscal committees that he came to “support the governor’s budget”.   Afterward, he explained why.

“I think by and large this is a pretty good budget for New York City,” said Bloomberg. “The governor has lots of new ideas to try new things.”

Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo largely agree on the need for pension reform, offering lesser benefits to future employees, and settling on a teacher evaluation plan.   In fact, Bloomberg went out of his way to praise the governor and down play any past tensions between Cuomo and himself. He told reporters after a private meeting with Cuomo that those stories had been overhyped in the media.

“New York City has a good partner in Albany,” said Bloomberg. “And it will stay that way.”

The Mayor did not hold back, though, when he was questioned at the hearing by Assemblyman David Weprin. The Queens Democrat asked why Bloomberg wasn’t pushing harder for more state aid. Weprin says under the previous governor, aid to the city’s portion of the unrestricted aid to municipalities was slashed, with  the understanding that it would  be restored the following year . Weprin say Governor Cuomo has not honored that commitment, and suggested Bloomberg should be pushing harder.

“Are you going to be making that argument strongly?”, asked Weprin, who said he was frustrated.

Bloomberg turned the tables, chiding Assemblyman Weprin for not pushing harder instead.

“I didn’t vote for the budget, you did,” Bloomberg said. “So negotiate harder for the people you represent.”

Weprin decided to drop that line of questioning.

While New York City’s mayor may be pleased with Cuomo’s budget, some upstate mayors clearly are not. Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown,  whose city was singled out in the state budget as the recipient of $1 billion dollars in economic aid,  told the hearing that he would still like more from the aid to municipalities fund, as well as restorations of other funding streams.  

 Brown says the austerity measures the state has taken have had a “significant impact” on the city’s finances.

“If not addressed, it will jeopardize the fiscal recovery we’ve worked so hard in Buffalo to establish,” said Brown.

Rochester Mayor Tom Richards says his city has a $40 million dollar budget gap and is “approaching the point of financial failure”.  He says the 2 percent property tax cap imposed by Cuomo and lawmakers last year means the city can raise just $3.2 million additional dollars.  The bankruptcy of the city’s former largest employer, Kodak, further erodes the tax base, as well as the economy, says Richards. Mayor Richards says Rochester has the lowest per capita rate of any upstate city for the state’s aid to municipalities fund, which results in the city paying more for its schools than Buffalo, even though there are fewer students.

“This is not to disparage Buffalo, we think you’ re doing right by Buffalo,” Richards said. “We just want you to do right by us, as well.”

The budget hearings continue for another three weeks, and will include testimony on health, the environment and taxes.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.