Commentators on the local scene frequently note what admirers call the focus, and detractors the lockstep mentality, of Republicans in the Monroe County Administration and especially in the County Legislature. By implication, perhaps on occasion directly, these comments suggest that County Legislature Democrats are lacking in this regard.
It's a suggestion both wrong and unfair.
No politically knowledgeable critic of our Legislature in recent years can overlook the focus or determination of its Democrats in pursuit of their prime objective: to force Maggie Brooks to increase the property tax, and Republican legislators to vote for it. For this reason, County Democrats attack any proposal that could meliorate the County's fiscal position.
Showing similar discipline in proposals of their own, legislative Democrats hew to a rigorous protocol:
1. Propose no measure that, if permitted by law, would reduce costs or otherwise improve the County’s financial position.
2. Propose measures that would help, but are legally prohibited.
3. Propose measures that conform to either rule above, and would pit Republican constituencies against each other or otherwise help Democrats politically.
These principles emerge from Democratic policy statements at democraticledger.org.
Some examples illustrate the point.
One. Early in her term Maggie Brooks tried to extend county funding for City school nurses. How? Brooks liked a new State Comptroller’s program to refinance a portion of existing debt at a lower interest rate. Same amount of debt. Same length of indebtedness. No “closing” costs. Only change: lower interest rate. Result: enough savings to pay for nurses.
As with all bonding measures, it required a two-thirds vote in the County legislature. Rarely an issue because both Democratic and Republican legislators routinely vote for bonding resolutions. But this one wasn’t routine. In addition to funding nurses, substantial additional savings would have accrued to the County for some years to come.
Joe Morelle himself was there for the vote, to hold his troops against the measure. The former county legislator who told us of this episode recounts that, when a member of the county employees’ union complained to Morelle, Little Joe shot back that his job isn't to fund nurses, it's to make Maggie Brooks look bad.
Two. Legislative Democrats stated their agenda for Monroe County in a “Blueprint for Progress.” It follows so scrupulously the rules noted above that it amounts to a Blueprint for Bupkis.
The centerpiece is a plan to reconfigure paying for Sheriff’s services. Democrats claim it would save over $20 million annually. The details show it would save nothing. It would shift the cost of paying for Sheriff’s services from all the towns to just a few of them (all with Republican legislators). But the County would take in the same revenue to pay for the Sheriff’s department, and the County’s cost would stay the same. No improvement to the county budget.
The Democrats argue that towns without police departments should foot the entire bill for Sheriff’s services. A great point to demagogue, and one that could pit Republican towns and legislators against each other: some represent towns with police departments; others don’t. Democrats were humiliated when they finally introduced it late last year. Undersheriff Daniel Greene rolled out data showing that the City and town police rely heavily on Sheriff’s deputies, both on calls for service and having Sheriff’s cars and deputies as backup, thereby allowing towns to staff police at affordable levels, and that nearly all “road patrol” deputies comprise the staff of special services that each local police department uses directly.
So much for examples of the main point: that Monroe County Democrats have shown discipline in working to force Maggie Brooks closer to having to raise property taxes. As Medicaid expense keeps rising, as the County gradually runs out of budget cuts and other revenue sources, Democrats have moved ever closer to their goal.
This explains their near-hysteria at the special meeting last Wednesday that adopted Maggie Brooks’s budget plan on a party-line vote.
The Holy Grail had been almost in reach. A $50 million projected deficit. No obvious way out. Mere days before the clock ran out on being able to pay Medicaid with sales tax.
And remember, paying for Medicaid with sales tax -- by itself -- would reduce funds going to the Towns, the City and school districts outside the City. Democrats in the Assembly thought they had this wired, by blocking the sales tax increase that Brooks wanted to use to compensate the other municipalities. County Democrats were starting to warn about a big property tax surprise in the budget to be introduced in November.
Then Brooks pulled the rabbit from the hat. Her plan uses the new Medicaid payment option, compensates all municipalities but suburban school districts for any loss of revenue, looks to record increases in state funding to school districts to take care of the districts. The cruelest blow of all: Brooks caps off her plan with a property tax decrease.
Monroe County Democrats felt political paradise at their fingertips. On Wednesday it became a paradise lost.
Of good and evil much they argued then,
Of happiness and final misery . . .
Vain wisdom all, and false philosophy!
Milton, Paradise Lost, Book ii, lines 562 - 565