Fighting for a Fair Share

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Rochester leaders recently announced that for a second year in a row they will make a major push for more state aid to the city, the “Fair Share” campaign.

The name comes from the campaign’s central concept: that Rochester should be helped on an equitable basis to the two cities that are most like it, Buffalo and Syracuse.

As it stands, Rochester is not. This year, Rochester received about $339 in state aid for every resident, compared to $446 for Syracuse and $509 for Buffalo, by my calculations using 2005 population estimates from the Census.

You might wonder how it got so out of whack. The conventional wisdom is that in years past Rochester was not as aggressive in going after state funding as were its neighbors. The theory around here used to be, with international corporations like Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb in our midst, we could take care of ourselves pretty well and didn’t need to beg and scrape for state dollars. Also, Buffalo got big increases over the last 10 years as its local economy tanked.

Mayor Robert Duffy decided Rochester needed to think differently or continue to be left in Buffalo and Syracuse’s trail. Last year’s effort yielded what city officials say is the largest increase in Rochester’s history, almost $18 million to a total of $71.6 million.

The only problem, from the Fair Share argument’s perspective, is Syracuse and Buffalo made out pretty well too, getting increases of $14 million and $26 million, respectively.

Still, Rochester made modest progress toward closing the gap. This year, Rochester is getting 67% of what Buffalo gets and 76% of what Syracuse gets. Those numbers the year before were 61% and 74%.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who says he is targeting more funding toward local governments in fiscal distress, has proposed a relatively large increase for Rochester next year. The city would be one of only two in the state to get 13.5% more state aid; the other is Fulton in Oswego County.

Buffalo and Syracuse, though, are also slated for big hikes at 9% apiece. So Rochester’s progress in closing the gap would continue, but at a snail’s pace. Under Spitzer’s proposal, Rochester would get 69% of what Buffalo gets and 79% of what Syracuse gets.

State aid to municipalities has a long history in New York, dating to 1789. At one time, it was distributed on a per-capita basis, but in 1965, a formula was established in state law to take into account fiscal need, tax effort and other factors as well. As followers of the state’s school-funding saga will understand, that formula spawned a few more over the years, and now they are mostly ignored when the state makes its allocations.

Spitzer is instituting a more thoughtful approach. The increases in his budget are based on whether a municipality meets threshold for fiscal distress in four areas: property value per capita, taxing level relative to constitutional limits, poverty rate and population loss since 1970. Those that meet the criteria get a bigger increase, up to 9%. He also upped increases for local governments like Rochester that are behind their peers in per-capita allocations, adding another 4.5%.

Rochester is hoping to get even more as the state budget is negotiated by the governor and the Legislature. But making the parity argument in Albany can be tricky. After all, if Rochester is seen as advocating against aid for Buffalo and Syracuse, that’s not taken kindly by the other cities or their representatives. Already, Rochester officials have been pulled into a spat with Buffalo over which city gets more in sales tax revenue, and which gives more to its schools (Rochester, in both cases, but you can see how this gets muddy).

And it may be a difficult environment. The bigger picture is that Spitzer eliminated municipal aid altogether for 81 local governments he deemed “high wealth” – including New York City. The Big Apple accounts by far for the lion’s share of $330 million saved by these cuts.

Unlike Rochester, New York City has never been shy about advancing its interests in Albany, so we can expect it to fight hard to get its money back. Rochester may have to battle more aggressively than it’s used to doing just to keep what it’s got in Spitzer’s proposal.

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