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Participants question state of the state


GOUVERNEUR — Participants at a presentation Wednesday on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s State of the State initiatives focused more on what was left out than on what was proposed as a legislative agenda for the year.

Mandate relief, assistance for struggling schools and health care were not addressed by the governor, audience members told Dierdre K. Scozzafava, deputy state secretary of state for local government, who gave an overview of Gov. Cuomo’s priorities to more than two dozen people in the municipal building.

Specific to St. Lawrence County, legislative leaders also talked about the county’s desire for an increase in sales tax as a way of lowering property taxes.

The goal of the presentation — one among many being made around the state — is not only to give a more personal view of Gov. Cuomo’s proposals but to hear what people think, Ms. Scozzafava said.

The county might not need additional revenue from sales tax if there were meaningful mandate reform, County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

“That is one of the most critical issues in every county,” she said. “We need some relief there.”

For 2013, the county’s tax levy is $46 million, of which $43.9 million pays for nine mandated programs. The cost of Medicaid alone in the county is $24 million, she said. A state cap on Medicaid increases started last year was insufficient.

“We haven’t saved anything,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “It’s nice it isn’t going up as rapidly as it was.”

Mandate relief is not part of the agenda, but that does not mean it has been forgotten as a task force continues to meet, Ms. Scozzafava said.

“It’s a work still in progress,” she said. “I know there’s a review of lots of different things.”

In addition to having agencies checking over their requirements, the state could benefit from hearing from those who carry out its mandates, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“People would welcome that,” she said. “Hear from us.”

The governor’s proposals for expanded education and other programs sound great, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“But again, who pays?” she said. “The local taxpayers are taxed to the max.”

St. Lawrence County has developed a five-year plan that would allow it to cut property taxes if it were able to raise the county sales tax from 3 to 4 percent. St. Lawrence is one of five of the state’s 62 counties that did not previously raise their sales tax and now are being punished by the mantra of no new taxes, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“Let’s look at it as an equity issue,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “I would ask you bring that issue back.”

Rather than relief, the state has heaped costs on school districts, such as the time and money spent to develop annual professional performance reviews, Gouverneur Central School Superintendent Lauren F. French said. She pegged the cost for Gouverneur at $180,000.

“That unfunded mandate alone was huge for us,” she said.

The governor’s agenda also avoids any mention of health care, said Diane L. Monroe, wife of Timothy J. Monroe, board chairman of E.J. Noble Hospital.

Community input on issues affecting local health care is kept to a minimum by a state Department of Health that seems to run independently of legislative oversight, she said.

The state closed the lab at E.J. Noble on Sept. 28. Although it later allowed a partial reopening of the lab, the hospital’s blood bank remains closed, making it impossible for the hospital to perform many services, and reducing its revenue.

“We’re isolated here. It’s 40 miles in either direction to another hospital,” Mrs. Monroe said. “Tim is really getting discouraged that the Health Department’s goal is to shut E.J. Noble down.”

Ms. Scozzafava, a former mayor of Gouverneur, assured Mrs. Monroe that the Department of Health has no such intent, but that there were many issues to work through. Other communities have included health care needs among projects addressed by the regional economic development councils, she said.

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