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County executive race boils down to how taxes are spent

Oct 17, 2019

Democrat Adam Bello, left, is challenging incumbent Republican County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo.
Credit Jacob Walsh/CITY Newspaper

Taxes: They’re what this year’s county executive race is fundamentally about.

As Republican incumbent Cheryl Dinolfo and Adam Bello, her Democratic opponent, lay out how they'll approach county government, they're really talking about how they'll spend money that comes from county, state, or federal taxes.

They're talking about how they'll manage the county's $1 billion budget, which pays for everything from the Seneca Park Zoo to road repairs, and from library funding to crucial social services and public assistance programs.

Dinolfo is nearing the end of her first four-year term. She was elected to the job after serving as county clerk for more than 11 years.

As the incumbent makes her case for another term, she's running on her record, particularly in two areas: property taxes and jobs. Dinolfo plays up her 2019 budget, which included the first county property tax rate cut in a decade. And she says that her administration had a hand in retaining and creating 20,000 jobs in Monroe County, an eye-popping statistic that warrants the skepticism it receives.

"We've got more to do," Dinolfo says. "We're going to build upon that, make sure that we're doing everything we can to move forward as a community."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed Bello as county clerk in 2016 to fill the vacancy left when Dinolfo took over as county executive; he was elected to the position later that year. He's also been Irondequoit supervisor, an administrator in the district attorney's office, an aide to then-Assembly member Joe Morelle, and executive director of the Monroe County Democratic Committee.

Early in his term as clerk, Bello seemed to begin laying the groundwork for a county executive run. He launched a task force on zombie properties and tried to get the county to open a permanent downtown DMV office. Legislature Republicans thwarted Bello's attempt, but by working with city, state, and federal officials, he helped bring a DMV office to East Main Street.

Bello says that Monroe County faces some serious problems, and the Dinolfo administration's approaches to them have been too narrow. The county should bring people and groups together to help find solutions to those challenges, he says.

"I think this community is in need of some new ideas, new energy, and new leadership," Bello says.

The race is a competitive one, even in terms of fundraising — an area where GOP candidates have traditionally clobbered Democrats. To date this year, campaign finance filings show both candidates have raised roughly $507,700; Dinolfo pulled in $40 more than Bello.

But the executive race alone won't determine which party controls county government, since the winner will have to work with the Legislature on budgets and laws.

Republicans currently control the chamber, and they've acted in concert with the Dinolfo administration. But all of the chamber's 29 seats are up for election in November and the balance of power could shift.

If one party wins the executive's office and the other takes the Legislature, there will be clashes — political or practical — when agendas don't align.

But if Dinolfo wins and Republicans keep control of the Legislature, they'll undoubtedly proceed with an overlapping agenda. The same would be true if Bello wins and the Dems seize control of the Legislature.

The two county executive candidates have some contrasting ideas on how county government should operate, and how it's currently operating.

About that tax rate cut ...

Dinolfo's 2019 budget reduced the county property tax rate by 10 cents, from $8.99 per $1,000 assessed value to $8.89 per $1,000 assessed value. That was the first tax rate decrease in 10 years.

But it wasn't a tax cut, a fact that Bello is all too eager to point out. The county will collect more revenue from property taxes than it did last year, just as it has annually since 2003. Every year the assessed value of property in the county increases, and the tax levy follows suit.

That growth in property tax revenue isn't necessarily bad; letting the levy grow with the tax base is generally considered a good municipal budgeting practice.

Dinolfo sticks to a message that she's helped improve the county's finances and that recent upgrades to its credit ratings provide independent validation of that.

She says she's focused on delivering services in the most cost-effective manner possible, though she doesn't offer much detail about how she's doing that. During press conferences and interviews, she often mentions getting out her pencil.

Dinolfo offers one specific: Her administration eliminated the quasi-governmental local development corporations it was using to handle tasks ranging from IT refreshes to public safety communications upgrades. The LDCs were controversial and, as a high-profile criminal case illustrated, susceptible to corruption.

Dissolving the LDCs has saved the county money, though it's tricky to pinpoint a figure, let alone to verify Dinolfo's claim that the savings totaled $30 million. The LDCs' operations were absorbed into county government, and the associated expenses and debts have been rolled into different areas of the budget.

Dinolfo lays much of the county's financial obligations on Albany, repeating the well-worn talking point that 85 percent of the county's spending is required by the state and that, in turn, the mandates drive property taxes. But she often leaves unsaid that, in addition to Medicaid and social services funding, that figure includes spending for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, the District Attorney's Office, Monroe Community College, and public health programs.

"We do remarkably well with the remaining 15 percent to ensure that we focus on priorities that are important to families in the County of Monroe, and to businesses as well," Dinolfo says.

Bello counters that Dinolfo invokes the mandates, with which governments across the state have to contend, to excuse problems that persist in county government and to deflect criticism.

The tax rate isn't everything ...

The Dinolfo administration has come under fire for a few issues, including high caseloads and problems with staff retention in its Child Protective Services division. To counter those problems, Dinolfo laid out an eight-point plan that added caseworker positions, raised caseworker pay, boosted recruitment efforts, and brought in aides to help with paperwork.

Dinolfo says the efforts are paying off and caseloads have gone down dramatically. But in a recent statement sent to media, the Federation of Social Workers said that many vacancies still exist and that "caseload sizes are still substantially higher than what experts in the field consider to be manageable."

Bello argues that Dinolfo hasn't effectively used the budget to address issues inside and outside of county government. He points to the problems with Child and Protective Services as one example and the county's handling of child day care subsidies as another.

For years, Democrats and advocates have pressed the county to better fund child day care subsidies. Dinolfo included a $2.1 million boost for the subsidies in her 2019 budget and reduced the fee that parents have to pay, and now the program has unfilled slots.

Bello says the openings do not indicate a lack of demand, but instead show that some people have difficulty securing the subsidies. The openings are also an indication that various county social services are not integrated well enough and understaffed, he says.

If someone comes in looking for housing assistance, they should also be connected with food benefits, day care assistance, workforce development programs, or other services, Bello says. The county spends half a billion dollars a year on social services, and that money should be treated as an investment to help lift people out of poverty, he says.

The county also needs to do a better job linking its social services with nonprofit agencies that have additional programs to help people, Bello says.

"You should be using all of those programs to put together the puzzle pieces for our residents so that you give them the extra support they need, so they can be successful and grow out of those programs in five or 10 years," Bello says.

In an interview, Dinolfo talked about the county's Paths to Empowerment program, which she says has helped 3,000 people with the transition from dependence on social services to self-sufficiency. Through the program, people receive job training and placement services, financial literacy training, workplace skills training, and drop-in child care.

Jobs, jobs, jobs ...

Dinolfo highlights job-training programs as an important part of the county's approach to economic development. Her administration worked with Monroe Community College to develop a program, LadderzUp, which trains workers for middle-skill jobs. Through the program, businesses can ask the county to train workers for them if they commit to hiring those workers at the end of the training.

Bello, too, believes that workforce training and development is important, though he says the area still has too many unfilled middle-skill jobs. His solution, again, is to team up with organizations outside of county government to ramp up job training efforts.

Job training programs are generally not controversial. The public has had much stronger reactions to the tax incentives doled out by the county's industrial development agency to businesses in exchange for promises to create or retain as few as one job. This approach isn't unique to the Dinolfo administration; her predecessors have done it as well.

Bello says the incentives are important, but they should be used differently. The administration and the county's industrial development authority should develop a set of priorities for economic development and focus incentives around them. For example, they could be used to encourage companies to locate along public transit routes, he says.

County government should be working to build infrastructure that businesses need, from roads and bridges to better internet connections, Bello says. Incentives could be used for some of that, such as supporting projects that include a mix of high-end, market rate, and low-income housing, he says.

Dinolfo, meanwhile, defends her administration's use of tax incentives. They're part of several tools the county uses — others include workforce development and location scouting — to attract and keep businesses here, she says. But she says business leaders tell her that New York's taxes and regulations are "sticking points" for staying.

Tax incentives, Dinolfo says, are essential because "New York state makes it very difficult for businesses to stay prosperous and remain in New York state."

Dinolfo says these efforts have helped to create or retain 20,000 jobs in Monroe County, a figure of which Bello is wildly skeptical.

In a press release questioning the number, Bello noted that Department of Labor Statistics show Monroe County gained only 5,000 jobs since Dinolfo took office.

Bello argues that Dinolfo's figure is skewed, since she includes jobs that she says were retained through county assistance and incentives. Even still, there's been no outside verification of those figures; the state tracks performance of IDAs across New York, but relies on the agencies to self-report.

In his press release, Bello says that going by the annual reports on the county IDA's website, the agency claims to have secured 112,000 jobs since 2007.

"That's nearly one-third of the total private sector jobs in the county — a claim that is outrageous on its face," Bello says in the release.

Moule is CITY Newspaper's news editor.