POLITICIANS DON’T LIKE to deliver bad news, unless it’s about the other side. Then they’re happy to paint a bleak picture followed by assurances that they and only they can lead us back into the sunlight, which would be so cynical of them if they weren’t telling us exactly what we demand to hear.
And then there’s Thomas P. DiNapoli, the comptroller of the State of New York. He visited Hudson to speak at the invitation of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce to couple of dozen officials, politicians, reporters and citizens undeterred by the rain and snow. Mr. DiNapoli offered a realistic assessment of the economic condition of the state and county and did his best to explain clearly why the solutions to our problems are as complex as the problems themselves. And though he’s a Democrat, he didn’t go out of his way to blame the usual suspects for what ails us.
As you might expect from a comptroller he began with the numbers, explaining that the state has “grown back all the jobs we lost” in the recession, with some areas, like New York City showing a net gain in new jobs. But the Mid-Hudson and Capital regions have lagged behind, regaining only 70% and 60% of the lost employment, respectively. And then there’s Columbia, which has recovered only 40% of the jobs lost. Unemployment in the county increased in January of this year, the last figure available, to 8.6%. That’s almost a percent higher than the average for all of last year.
He also mentioned the “uptick” in home foreclosures in the county from 42 in 2011 to 155 homes foreclosed on last year. The audience gasped at the increase: three and a half times as many in just a year. Some uptick. And while the number of home sales rose last year compared to the year before, the average sale price dropped. But the county’s sales tax revenues were well ahead of the statewide average, so Mr. Di Napoli put the best face possible on the situation, calling the economy “a mixed bag.”
From there he plunged into the state budget over which he and his office have little practical control. He wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to remind his listeners that the legislature and governor are continuing the tradition of relying on hallucinations dressed up as revenue sources, like windfalls from gambling at casinos run by Native Americans. And that led him to the “D” word (“debt”) and New York’s distinction as the second most indebted state in the nation, which he attributed to the state’s public authorities, the governments-within-the-government that now account for 94% of borrowing. Debt service is the fastest growing part of our state budget, he said.
The Office of the Comptroller monitors the financial health of local municipalities and acts as the “overseer of the property tax,” Mr. Di Napoli said. With so much debt the state has less and less money to help reduce the burden on cities, towns and villages, let alone repair roads and bridges.
In addition to county government we have 18 towns, 4 villages, 1 city and 6 public school public school districts in the county; 12% of them plan to override the state’s 2% cap on property tax levy increases this year, said the comptroller.
One of the common complaints voiced by local officials stems from the large contributions required by the state to fund the state pension system. As comptroller, Mr. Di Napoli is the sole trustee of the state’s public employee pension fund, the third largest in the nation. He’s the one who decides how much towns and villages must pay, and he addressed the questions head-on.
He said the pension fund had suffered its worst ever losses in the recession that began in 2008-09, and it would take a full five years to repair the damage. There’s one more year to go of high rates he said, not what anyone wanted to hear, but straight talk from the person who matters most in this situation. All he could offer was “the worst is over.” Tough love, I guess.
Here was an independently elected statewide officeholder giving uncomfortably clear, detailed answers to unscripted questions without trying to apply much in the way of spin. Imagine that–a politician who treats voters as if he believes we can think for ourselves. It’s probably not a contagious condition, but we can always hope.