Inside Politics: Community college costs budget quandary

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Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings

Albany County legislative leaders have been hustling for the better part of a week to scrounge up the votes to override the state’s 2 percent cap on property tax growth, handing a heaping helping of leverage to a half-dozen hold-out Democrats.

Some of those lawmakers have been pushing the legislature’s leadership to shrink its proposed 9 percent tax increase by passing more costs onto cities, towns and villages.

Specifically, the legislators — all but one of them from the suburbs — want the county to pass on all or part of the county’s share of community college tuition costs to the localities the students hail from.

The move has detonated an avalanche of back channel outrage from municipal leaders, who are finalizing their own budgets and tax rates this week and had not counted on covering potentially hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in community college costs.

But it is those local budgets — many of which are coming in under the tax cap — that have so vexed some county lawmakers, who say they are tired of being cast as villains for exceeding the cap while making it easier for local governments to live under it by paying some of their bills.

The final straw for some came when Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings last week added just shy of $300,000 in raises for nonunion employees to his budget, which would still not increase the city’s property tax levy.

“They can’t help us out on any of this? They are able to go under the cap,” said Joseph O’Brien, a first-term Democrat from Loudonville and one of the holdouts. “Some of our employees in the county haven’t had a raise in four or five years. Do you think that’s fair?”

O’Brien added: “There are structural problems with our budget, and we’ve never addressed them.”

The others, according to those familiar with the talks, include Christopher Higgins of Albany, Phil Steck of Loudonville, Tim Nichols of Latham, Dennis Feeney of Guilderland and Charlie Dawson of Glenmont.

Dawson, a member of the legislature’s powerful Audit and Finance Committee, declined to discuss his position beyond objecting to the characterization of being a holdout because he is “firm” against exceeding the cap. He said he planned to vote against the measure when the committee met Thursday evening, after Insider’s deadline.

While the legislature and County Executive Dan McCoy have sparred over McCoy’s plan to privatize the nursing home in his budget, both branches of government have proposed spending plans with 9 percent tax increases — meaning both would require a tax cap override.

Under state law, such an override requires a 60 percent majority vote. That amounts to 24 of the legislature’s 39 members.

With none of the 10 Republican or Conservative members seemingly likely to break ranks and support a politically unpopular override, legislative leadership would need to convince at least one of the six Democrats to switch sides.

Steck, who’ll vacate his seat in January because he was elected this month to the Assembly, said he will hold firm unless he gets some kind of concrete commitment that the issue will be addressed in the near future.

He said Nichols led a similar push last year to change the way the county shares its sales taxes with local governments and was told by legislative leadership that the issue would be taken up.

“Promises were made to make changes; no changes were forthcoming,” Steck said, adding, “I think the county has done a great job enabling the municipalities to hold the line on taxes.”

Democratic Majority Leader Frank Commisso expressed confidence his caucus would have the votes to override the tax cap and said he’s offered to convene a committee to study the community college issue after the first of the year. Commisso said it’s too late in the game now to spring the charges on local leaders.

“Apparently they must have had this planned well in advance and didn’t say anything about it,” Commisso said. “I can’t do it in good conscience to the municipalities without notice. They think you snap a finger, you do this, and boom, it’s in the budget.”

Watervliet Mayor Mike Manning echoed that sentiment. He said he understood the legislature’s position and would be willing to discuss the budget issues with lawmakers — just not when the ink on his own spending plan is almost dry.

“This is two years in a row where they’re about to drop a big bomb on us at the 11th hour,” Manning said. “I’d much rather sit down and address these things in bulk, not one at a time on Nov. 30 every year.”

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