EDITORIAL: AIM cut goes too far

ATTENTION COLUMBIA COUNTY taxpayers. Your towns and villages are too rich. Your leaders have managed your money too carefully. This is New York. These things are not allowed. You will be punished for your good behavior starting April 1.

No kidding. That’s when the state budget is supposed to take effect. It’s likely to be on time again this year because both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s mansion are controlled by the same party, although it’s important to remember the pride Democrats take in disagreeing with each other. It’s possible that willingness to squabble could save towns and villages a lot of money if it leads to a revised state budget.

Squeezed into Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed 2019-20 state budget is a reduction in something called Aid & Incentives to Municipalities, or AIM. It’s a program that provides direct state funding to villages, towns and cities. The funding for cities, including Hudson, would remain untouched. But 846 towns and 480 villages around the state would lose whatever they were expecting to get. All 18 towns and 4 villages in Columbia County will lose these funds.

Why? Because the state thinks they don’t need the money. As the state puts it, communities like ours have a “low reliance” on these funds. They know this because they use a simple formula: Did the town or village receive AIM funding that was less that 2% of the municipality’s total spending in 2017. If so, the AIM funding was “not a significant source of revenue” for the municipality, or so the governor’s executive budget says.

Besides, the governor says all these communities have way too much money squirreled away in reserve funds. And even if your town or village needs the money, there are other state programs that can help as long as you’re willing to share more services or operate more efficiently.

By the end of next month New York will probably adopt a $102-billion state budget, give or take a few billion. The state says that cutting the AIM program will save $59 million. Maybe the budgetary brain trust in Albany figured nobody would miss that money and this relatively small amount could instead help close a looming $3-billion budget deficit.

But talking about the millions and billions the state deals in obscures the impact that this direct aid has on real places and the people who live here. In Kinderhook, for instance, the loss in AIM funding comes to $50,661. In Valatie the hit is $9,399 and the Village of Kinderhook gets clobbered by a loss of $6,803. And how about the Town of Chatham, which loses $16,181? It’s not hard to think of potholes or summer programs that could benefit from this money.

And how come 2% of your budget is the cutoff for receiving AIM funding? Why isn’t the standard connected to what the money is used for rather than what percentage of the local budget it represents? This type of opaque reasoning makes you think that the 2% figure was the number some genius needed to come up with a $59-million cut rather than a rational determination of where the money would do the most good.

Worst of all, this was a political sucker punch for the towns. They had to adopt their budgets late last fall before the governor released his executive spending plan. Those AIM funds were committed to projects that Town Board members determined their town needed.

New York State has wealthy communities that won’t feel pain from the loss of these funds. It has poor municipalities that may need more help than the state can offer. The governor can direct limited revenues to places where the need is greatest but he has a duty to act on behalf of all state residents. It’s a balancing act but he’s off balance on this one and should rethink the cuts to AIM.

What the governor has proposed is a shift in costs from the state to the municipalities, which is another reason why municipalities should resist it. It’s wrapped in hypocrisy too. The governor says on one hand that when AIM funding adds up to less than 2% of a municipality’s expenditures, the municipality doesn’t deserve the money; at the same time his executive budget calls for making the 2% cap on tax levy increases permanent. Maybe he should let municipalities deduct their lost AIM funding from their tax levy limit.

All municipalities that haven’t yet called on the governor and local lawmakers to restore AIM funding should do so immediately.

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