With art by Forest Byrd

Standing together leaves nest eggs uncracked

We’re reporting on some welcome news in Guilderland this week. Two more contracts with town workers have been agreed upon — with no raises.

We commend those in the two units for agreeing to keep their current salaries. The United Public Service Employees Union, which has members of the Guilderland Emergency Medical Services, got job security in return for no raises — an agreement of no layoffs.

In this troubled economy, that strikes us as a fair trade.

Those in the Civil Service Employees Association Unit A, which has just three members — the director of animal services and two tele-communicators — also agreed to no raises. A second CSEA unit, which has 27 positions — ranging from a courier to the building inspector — had settled on a contract in November.

Rodger Stone, the president of that unit, said at the time, “Nobody was really upset with the lack of a pay raise. We understand that, if the money is not there, it’s not there.”

We again commend that view as both generous and practical.

Supervisor Kenneth Runion had proposed the budget before the contracts were settled. This led one of his own party, Democratic Councilman Paul Pastore, to vote against the plan; he was joined by the two Republican board members. With no alternative plan, the supervisor’s proposal became the 2011 budget.

Pastore had made a valid point: Budget expenditures aren’t solid with the contracts unresolved.

Runion pointed out that, even though workers won’t get a pay raise, extra monetary benefits are built into their benefits as the cost of health insurance and retirement contributions have both gone up.

We are relieved that the members of two more units saw it that way.

Now, only one town contract remains to be settled — for the Guilderland Police Benevolent Association, with 35 members. Its salaries are set by rank. Officers hired in 2010 made $44,702; after five years, they earned $71,125; and after 18 years they earned $74,603. In the upper ranks, first sergeants make $75,205 to start and $85,239 after 18 years while senior detectives make $50,164 to start and $80,064 after 18 years.

There are wide discrepancies, though, among officers’ salaries because some take on overtime, which Runion has tried to cut back, but he says some can’t be avoided. The Guilderland Police Department paid five of its officers over $100,000 in 2010; the police chief’s salary was $89,961 while other salaries ranged from $61,207 to $119,599.

In February 2009, when Runion was cutting back overtime hours as county sales tax revenues were decreasing, Brian Forte, who was then president of Guilderland’s Police Benevolent Association, said, “The town has asked us to cooperate with their plans in order to avoid lay-offs. No one is ever happy to see a reduced salary, but everyone on the force understands the need to cooperate, and we’re doing everything we can to maintain our numbers.”

We hope that attitude prevails again — that workers will forego raises so that others may keep their jobs.

This fall’s statewide elections made it clear that New Yorkers are fed up with high property taxes. A centerpiece of Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo’s campaign was to cap state spending — including the imposition of a local property tax cap. As one of his five major points, Cuomo has recommended a property tax cap set at the lower of the inflation rate or 2 percent.

A poll released this week by the Siena Research Institute shows that Cuomo maintains his popularity, being viewed favorably by two-thirds of the voters. Siena surveyed New Yorkers, asking, “What would you do as State Senator?” The highest score in answer to that question was the 85 percent who said they would require state legislators to detail the amount and source of all their income earned outside of their legislative duties.

The second highest — with 76 percent for it — was to limit to 2 percent the amount property taxes can rise each year.

So more than three-quarters of new Yorkers want a 2-percent property tax cap.

“We cannot tax our way out of the current crisis,” Cuomo states in his fiscal plan for closing the $30 billion budget gap that New York faces over the next three years. “New York already has the second highest combined state and local taxes in the nation and the highest local taxes in America as a percentage of personal income — 79 percent above the national average.”

That drives both people and businesses that provide jobs out of New York.

Cuomo recognizes that one of the main reasons New York spends so much more than comparable states is because of state mandates that dramatically increase the cost to local governments and schools. He has promised to eliminate unnecessary mandates and propose a “sunset” bill, requiring them to be re-evaluated every two years and eliminated unless renewed. Reining in unfunded mandates is essential if local governments are to be restricted in their spending.

Cuomo’s plan says that any tax levy increase above the inflation rate would be prohibited, unless endorsed both by the local governing board and by a 60-percent majority vote. This would place the decision to pay more where it should be — with the citizens footing the bill.

We believe the citizens have spoken and, come January, it is time for the legislators to act. Without a legislative curb, taxes will continue to spiral upwards.

Cuomo states that local property tax levies in New York grew by 73 percent from 1998 to 2008, more than twice the rate of inflation during that period. And, while most New Yorkers are aware of the rise in school taxes, Cuomo points out that hikes in local government taxes have topped the inflation rate as well. While the inflation rate for the five years from 2002 to 2007 ran at 2.9 percent annually, the average annual tax increase for cities across the state was 5.1 percent, for towns was 5.6 percent, for counties was 5.7 percent, for villages was 6.2 percent, for school districts was 7.5 percent, and for fire districts was 7.6 percent.

Guilderland, to its credit, has beaten these odds. Even as health-insurance costs have gone up and even as the state pension funds, battered by the crisis on Wall Street, have required greater local contributions, Supervisor Runion, during his 12-year tenure, has had only one budget with a tax increase, and that was by one cent per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

We credit not just the town leadership for this accomplishment but also the rank and file workers who are willing to forego raises for the benefit of their fellow workers and the good of the community.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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