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County leaders say state government failing to help with pandemic

J. Stephen Conn


County leaders in New York say they are frustrated over delays by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature to make major decisions about the state’s multibillion-dollar budget gap.

They're also asking for more cooperation in carrying out key functions during the COVID-19 pandemic, like testing and tracing. 

County governments, like other localities, say they are “stretched thin” because of the pandemic, with plummeting revenues to fund services and increased responsibilities to carry out coronavirus testing and other new tasks assigned by Cuomo. Those include inspecting gyms, and policing bars and restaurants for pandemic safety violations.

Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, president of the New York State County Executives Association, said most of the functions of county governments fly under the radar screen until there’s an emergency like COVID-19.

“There is no pandemic response in the state of New York without county government,” said Molinaro, who ran for governor on the Republican ticket against Cuomo in 2018.

He said counties are in charge of setting up testing sites and coordinating with labs and providing personal protective equipment. 

“There is no flattening of the curve without county governments,” Molinaro said.

Dr. Kevin Watkins, the public health director for Cattaraugus County and head of the New York State Association of County Health Officials, said local health departments are on the “absolute front line” for fighting COVID-19, and need more help with new directives to oversee testing in schools in virus hot spots.

“Seven months in now, our local health departments are short-staffed. We’re working overtime,” Watkins said. “And we’re being folded into this newest initiative without any proper support, any funding or any guidance.”

The county leaders complain that most of the communication with Cuomo and his administration is one-way right now -- they say the governor gives the orders, and they have to carry them out.

Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties, said the counties have submitted a list of 75 proposals to the governor. They include lifting the property tax cap, gleaning more money from state Thruway tolls, and allowing counties to borrow more money. But he said they have heard nothing back yet. 

“We need to be collaborating with our governor,” said Acquario. “He is the entire government right now; there is no legislative role whatsoever.” 

The county leaders were also critical of the State Legislature, which has not met since July. Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, a Democrat who is also president of the County Executives of America, said the Senate and Assembly have not taken an active role in deciding how to deal with a $15 billion state budget deficit.

McCoy said state lawmakers gave away too much decision-making power to the governor last March, when the state emergency was first declared and are now using that transfer of responsibility as an excuse not to act.

“Where were you for four months when this started? “ McCoy asked. “You should have been doing your job. They haven’t shown up. … Where have you been?”

Mike Murphy, a spokesman for the Democrats who lead the State Senate, responded in a statement that McCoy’s comments were a “cheap shot,” and that county leaders should instead be working with state lawmakers. 

“The Legislature has taken decisive action to help millions of struggling New Yorkers trying to endure this crisis,” Murphy said, adding that the bills include helping people stay in their homes during the pandemic as well as “historic police reforms.”

Mike Whyland, a spokesman for the State Assembly Democrats, said McCoy is “entitled to his own wrong opinion” and that the Legislature has passed a number of bills to address the pandemic.

Cuomo has taken some measures to control spending, including temporarily holding back some state aid from localities and schools. But he said he does not want to make final decisions about the budget until he sees whether President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden wins on Nov. 3, and whether Democrats take over the U.S Senate, making New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s majority leader.

“First of all, you’re going to know in less than a month,” Cuomo said. “And any action you take will cause damage.” 

McCoy said that’s too long to wait. He said even if Democrats win, it would take until at least March before funds from a federal relief package became available. 

“I wish I could (wait),” said McCoy, whose proposed county budget for 2021 includes $13 million in spending cuts.

Molinaro agrees that Cuomo and the Legislature should be dealing with the deficit now. He said it’s not “productive” to make the state budget deficit a political “football” in the presidential election. 

Molinaro said the state had structural deficit problems even before the pandemic hit. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.