Syracuse (WSYR-TV) - Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is making waves in Albany again, giving state lawmakers mixed reviews of Governor Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal, during hearings on Monday.
Miner began her comments at the Capitol with a compliment. She praised the governor's plan to cap awards when negotiations with public employee unions are resolved by arbitrators. The mayor told lawmakers that police and fire crews make up 67% of employee expenses for Syracuse and each 1% step increase costs the city about $1-million. She believes a cap would help stabilize expenses.
Miner is less enthusiastic about the governor's idea to tackle rising pension costs.
"Pensions are by far the biggest uncontrollable cost the city is challenged with paying," Miner told lawmakers. "The pension system is a New York state benefit. Pensions are state-controlled, they are state run, and they are [a] state authorized fund. Local governments simply receive a bill."
Syracuse's pension costs rose from $2.4-million in the 2000-01 fiscal year to $19.9-million a decade later. Investments pay for state worker pensions. But, those investments fell dramatically during the recession. Local governments and schools have to make up the difference, and it has been a big difference in recent years.
There may be some long-term relief. Last year, Miner stood beside Governor Cuomo as reforms were signed into law. Under Tier VI, newly hired public employees have pension plans that cost workers themselves more than the previous system, but lighten the cost for taxpayers. The immediate savings are minimal as municipalities wait for public employees under the previous tier to retire.
"It is our experience that public safety employees are not retiring after twenty years of service. In Syracuse, the higher rank of a firefighter or police officer, the longer they stay in the system at the higher contribution rate," Miner explained. "We are looking to trim an already lean workforce and are reviewing every position and not filling it where necessary."
State lawmakers at the budget hearings were told the city of Syracuse has hired 24 replacement workers since Tier VI was enacted, with savings of $38,000. Miner called the amount a "sliver" of relief, since pension projections for the 2013-14 fiscal year climb to $32.5-million.
The governor's solution is to let local governments essentially borrow to pay off the current pension increases, anticipating relief down the road when the benefits of Tier VI kick in. In his budget summary, Cuomo's office describes the proposal this way: "A Stable Rate Pension Contribution Option to allow local governments and school districts to lock in long-term, stable rate pension contributions for a period of years that would dramatically reduce near-term payments but still achieve full funding in each system over the long-term."
Republican Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney calls her democratic governor's idea a "common sense plan". Mahoney told lawmakers at Monday's hearings that the situation isn't ideal, but she believes Governor Cuomo has offered more mandate relief than any administration in recent history.
"The tool proposed by the governor provides an option for municipalities whose other option includes only bankruptcy and a control board," Mahoney said.
Mayor Miner, who was appointed by Cuomo to co-chair the state democratic party, remains skeptical and she isn't afraid to publicly question the governor's math.
"The near-term savings are calculated on events in the future that may not occur. I am concerned that in the first five years of the plan, we may be financing another liability that we may not be able to pay," Miner argued.
Any decision made now will play out long after Miner's term in office ends.