Friday, May 11, 2007

Someone Gets It Right

While the Utica Observer-Dispatch and WKTV swallowed the "tax cut" spin on Oneida County's new tax, the Rome Sentinel didn't.

Aiming for a “long-range plan” over a short-term election year fiscal fix, Oneida County’s chief executive said today he wants to keep most of the local 1 percent sales tax that expires on Nov. 30. Anthony J. Picente Jr. will seek permission to continue the special tax at .75 percent for two years. Otherwise, he said, county landowners would face a property tax increase of nearly 50 percent.

Out of the three major media outlets serving the area only the Sentinel offered an accurate description of how Mr. Picente wants to handle the County's funding problems. It's not a "tax cut" or a "sales tax drop". Yes, I'm arguing semantics, but in this case it's an important distinction. Why?

When then-County Executive Griffo unveiled his 2005 budget he proposed to add a 1.5 percent “Medicaid Sales Tax” to the existing 4 percent county sales tax. He said it was less burdensome to raise local sales tax to the highest in the state than to hike the property tax levy by about 48 percent to raise the same amount of money. The legislators agreed and there was no property tax increase in 2005.

This wasn't just a "Medicaid Sales Tax". This was a temporary "Medicaid Sales Tax", designed to provide a short-term solution to the long-term problem of the state's out of control Medicaid spending. That problem still hasn't been solved, since our tax dollars ultimately end up paying the criminally inflated costs anyway, but the state has put a cap on the share of the expenses paid by local governments, obviating the need for the increased sales tax.

Now Mr. Picente has donned his top hat and tails, walked on stage, and...Presto! Chango! Tada!...turned the "temporary" tax into an integral, permanent part of the County's funding process.

County Legislator Michael J. Hennessy, D-2, Sherrill, was not satisfied. He issued a statement by phone this morning, following the announcement. It read: “The one-quarter of one percent reduction does not go far enough. This is not in the spirit of the original legislation. Maybe returning to 8 percent was unrealistic, but reducing it by only one-quarter of a percent falls far short of making our sales tax less burdensome to our taxpayers and retail merchants. The discussion should not only be a debate on what’s better — increasing sales tax or property tax. It should have started with reducing the size of government and cutting expenses. Our problem is not with raising revenues, it’s been for a long time controlling the size of government and the cost it’s put on our taxpayers.”

Clearly, I woke up in the Bizarro universe this morning, because here we have a Democratic politician asking why a tax increase is even needed. Something even more notable since, you know, it's a pretty common-sense point of view that Mr. Picente has, by all measures, already rejected.

Look, I know Oneida County is facing some major budget problems. Well, "major" doesn't really describe it adequately. "Apocalyptic" is more appropriate. Over the next five years the County is going to have to come up with something north of $100 million dollars to cover the costs of infrastructure improvements. I just find it hard to believe that cuts to services aren't even being considered, much less advocated, by the serving County Executive.

But wait, it gets better.

Picente said that he’ll take his case to Albany Tuesday, when he meets with local legislators to convince them to support the plan. “They want to see our numbers,” he said. Asked if he’s received commitments from any state legislators to sponsor the home rule message, he said, “not yet, not until I show them our numbers. I haven’t asked for a commitment. I really need to know within a week. Hopefully I’ll get that answer when I meet with them Tuesday.”

"I really need to know within a week".

No time for debate. No time for a consideration of all the options. No time for a realistic appraisal of different approaches to the budget, including the option for a true cut-to-the-bone approach.

Bravo, Mr. Picente. You've now mastered the art of governance by crisis.