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Mandate Relief a Hot Topic for Hastings Panel

HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. – Better Education and Smarter Taxation 4 New York lead a discussion on New York State mandate relief on Monday night, saying the regulations have put local governments on a disaster course.

“Things need to change otherwise the reasons we all came to Westchester County won’t exist anymore,” said Jim McCauley, a board member of BEST4NY .

BEST4NY board members said an increase in unfunded mandates has helped lead to higher taxes in the villages, which many local residents are less than happy about.

“I feel as though the taxpayers of New York are the victims,” said Dobbs Ferry resident Peter Halpin.

The panel discussion was held at the Hastings Community Center to discuss how mandates have affected contract negotiations and driven up the cost of local governments in particular.

“The answer is not to cut jobs or programs,” said Roger Scheiber, a board member of BEST4NY.  “We just need to get these mandates under control.”

Local politicians such as Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner sat on the panel to offer their thoughts on the recent budget woes.

“Last year I had to do something for the first time that I had nightmares about, I had to lay people off,” he said.  “Mandates are forcing government to destroy people’s lives.”

Discussions ranged from increases in pension costs to negotiating salaries and the difficulties that arbitration can bring to both local governments and school districts.

“Most schools spent 17 to 20 percent of their budgets on unfunded mandates,” said Hastings Board of Education president Eileen Baecher about school districts in New York State.

Potential solutions were also brought up from large sweeping changes to smaller tweaks to help save money while facing the unfunded mandates.

“If it were up to me I’d get rid of arbitration panels and leave it up to locally elected officials to set salaries,” Feiner said.

Feiner also suggested basing pensions handed out solely on salaries rather than salaries along with overtime.  Hastings Village Manager Fran Frobel suggested adopting a policy known as last best offer, which he said isolates the various issues in a negotiation and allows a municipality to make its best offer somewhere in the middle of both parties, rather than going to arbitration.

Most of the panel agreed widespread changes were unlikely, but focusing on increasing efficiency in current programs and smaller tweaks may be the more likely outcome.

“It’s very slow and gradual but in the last year or so I think arbitrators are starting to understand these issues,” said Vincent Toomey, an attorney of labor and employment law.  “I think a lot of communities settled those contracts because they were afraid of going to arbitration and doing worse.  I’m more optimistic about the process than I used to be.”

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