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Citizens Putting State Mandates in the Crosshairs

Fiscal-reform groups also vow to pressure lawmakers on public-employee compensation.

From Chappaqua to the far corners of Westchester and beyond, unfunded state mandates are increasingly becoming the target of citizen-advocates for fiscal reform. Two such county-level groups—one brand new, the other a force in business affairs for more than 60 years—shared the floor Monday at a meeting in New Castle Town Hall.

Best4NY, founded this year by like-minded taxpayers from Chappaqua to Pelham to Yorktown, hosted William M. Mooney Jr., president of the Westchester County Association, which has been speaking on behalf of the county business community since 1950. On Monday, old group and new were united in calling for a change in state mandates, which are essentially program costs that Albany unilaterally bills to local government rather than fund them with state money.

Long assailed by elected local officials as unfairly burdensome and an intrusion on their home-rule prerogatives, the mandates drew increased scrutiny by the electorate this year after the state imposed a 2 percent cap on increases in property-tax levies.

Mooney said his organization had supported the cap despite some reservations over exceptions and service cuts, among other things. “We went along,” he said, “because we thought it would force a conversation on mandate relief.”

While “we have a powerful voice” in Albany, Mooney said, “that is not enough.” He said the county association met at LaGuardia Airport in Queens with a Rochester-based group, Unshackle Upstate, and the Long Island Association to forge the beginnings of a statewide voice for fiscal reform, called Let NY Work.

Mooney made it clear that state legislators would be principal targets. Asserting that more of them are indicted in a given year than fail to be re-elected, he said, “We get what we deserve.” Mooney called on the audience, about 30 people, “to think about the incumbents and what they have done to us.”

The second principal target group—of Mooney’s organization and others, including the fledgling Best4NY—is public employees. Their pensions, health-insurance costs and salaries have all come under scrutiny amid calls for change. Public-sector salaries and benefits statewide, Mooney said, are higher on average than private industry’s in every county.

Best4NY supports several areas of mandate change, including a move from a defined benefit system to a defined contribution one, restructuring tenure for teachers and repealing the Triborough Amendment, which keeps in place terms of expired union contracts before new ones are adopted. Some of the group's founding members came from New Castle Citizens for Responsible Education (NCCRE), which has pressed these issues to the Chappaqua school board and taken stances on school budget votes.

In the next legislative session, Mooney said, Let NY Work will lobby in Albany to raise the state pension plan’s employee contributions from 3 percent to 6 percent, require a 15 percent employee contribution to the cost of health insurance, increase the retirement age from 62 to 65 and exclude overtime in calculating pensions.

At the Best4NY meeting that followed Mooney’s talk, James McCauley of Chappaqua, a member of the group’s executive committee. reviewed the results of an October meeting with County Executive Robert P. Astrorino and his chief of staff, George Oros. McCauley is also a member of member of NCCRE.

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