Zero Sum Game

January 12, 2014

Our elected officials love to make noise about ‘holding the line on taxes’ — whether at the federal, state, county or local level.

In the private sector, we know there are 2 ways to improve fiscal efficiency. One way is to increase revenues, either by selling more products or raising prices on existing products. Another is to reduce costs.

The public sector is much more complex, because of the layers of government which often overlap and have some redundancy.

One thing is clear: if the federal government cuts back on safety net services to reduce costs, the need for those services is still there. Provision of services (or some substitute) thus rolls down to the state, county or local level. In the jargon of economists, that’s known as the ‘Zero Sum Game’.

I live in the City of Mount Vernon in lower Westchester County NY.

Westchester has a very large share of residents who are among the wealthiest Americans. Some call their Westchester residence home, while others use their Westchester property as a secondary or tertiary residence. Because of these very wealthy families who own extraordinary properties, Westchester has one of the highest median property values in the United States, and is ranked 1st of the 3143 U.S. counties in order of median property taxes.

What they fail to mention is that most properties in Westchester County are taxed by 3 different entities: The County (18%); the municipality (22%); and the school district (60%).

For me and my Mount Vernon neighbors, the estates of the landed gentry might as well be on another planet.

Those of us who live in Mount Vernon are seeing the effects first hand of what happens when politics gets in the way of reality. We experienced a very contentious and hard-fought battle for the office of County Executive in the second half of 2013.

The incumbent, Rob Astorino, campaigned relentlessly on his Tea Party platform of No Tax Increases!

Despite the fact that county property taxes in Westchester typically represent less than 20% of the total property tax burden, the sound bite of No Tax Increases, combined with a consistent message that his opponent – in his role as Mayor of New Rochelle – had raised taxes on New Rochelle property owners, Mr. Astorino gained the support of a number of factions, including some elected officials, and he was re-elected.

Now, because the County has not increased taxes, it has cut funding for vital services, and guess where the vital services are most needed?

Cities like Mount Vernon, Yonkers, New Rochelle, Peekskill are left holding the bag. No funding from the County for services? City taxpayers pick up the tab in their City budget, instead of spreading the tax burden across the broader County tax base and allowing property owners in all areas to share the cost of services which tend to impact most on lower-income areas.

A recent report ranked 4 Westchester towns — including Briarcliff, Lewisboro, Irvington and Pleasantville — as some of the safest areas in New York State to live. Those folks can well afford to pay for great schools, plenty of police, etc. in part because they don’t get burdened with covering the costs of services in less affluent communities.

Here in Mount Vernon, we have an elected City Council member who was a vehement supporter of Rob Astorino in his re-election campaign, loving the promise of no tax increases. Now, the City taxpayers are facing an 8% City tax increase in order to maintain some semblance of vital services which the County will no longer provide due to budget cuts.

Our City Council member is visiting somewhere in the Twilight Zone, creating her own illusions of reality, and she has supporters who believe in her?

Let me warn you folks: Don’t drink any of her Kool Aid! And, be very careful of the messages you hear on the election trail!

Elected School Boards?

April 7, 2012

Very frustrating, very disappointing, very stupid….

The Mount Vernon City School District (NY) has been an underperforming district for at least 2 decades.

Instead of finding ways to improve student outcomes, our elected Board of Education demonstrates their collective incompetence by mysteriously ‘suspending’ Superintendent Dr. Welton Sawyer in early November 2011.

Now (fully 5 months later), we learn that the reason for the suspension was something called, ‘irreconcilable differences’.

We also learned that we, the hard working, money earning Mount Vernon Taxpayers, will continue paying Sawyer’s $269,403 yearly salary through May 31, even though he hasn’t worked full time since Nov. 4, when the Board of Education suspended him.

Further, we will also have the privlege of covering five years of Sawyer’s post-employment health insurance, as well as 50 percent of his health insurance bill in the second five-year period. (That is what he would have received under his employment contract after working a minimum of five years.)

Other financial perks for Sawyer include 10 unused vacation days and $42,500 in tax-deferred annuity retirement payments.

If this isn’t proof that our Elected School Board is a recipe for disaster, what more evidence do we need?

Oh, wait! There’s more!

In another bone-headed move, our elected School Board members decided that because the newly created and state-approved Amani Charter School would take “money away from financially distressed public schools”, they refused to fund it.

Amani appealed to the State (which had approved the Charter after an incredible uphill battle) and the State agreed to pay Amani directly by intercepts of state aid to the MVCSD since it opened in the fall of 2011.

Our elected Board of Education filed legal papers in state Supreme Court last year asking for a reversal of state education officials’ original approval of a charter.

Ruling on the suit in October 2011, the judge vacated the Charter, but the Regents reapproved it a week later, followed almost immediately by the District appealing the Regents decision, and renewing the legal battle.

Amani Executive Director Debra Stern said recently she hopes the state will, once again, reinstate the Charter saying, “This school has been under attack since its inception. We view this as an attack on the basic civil rights of high-needs, high-poverty kids in Mount Vernon.”

Now, those who know me know that I’m not a big fan of Charter Schools in New York State.

I mostly don’t care for them because they tend to create plenty of tension between the parents of students who ‘win the lotto’ and those who don’t — see: “Waiting for Superman”.

I also am not fond of the way charter schools are funded in New York State — but that is a state legislative / policy issue, not a local issue.

In fact there are some examples of fabulous School District & Charter School partnerships and cooperation that have led to great outcomes.

Public School #68 in Buffalo had deteriorated to become one of Buffalo’s worst performing elementary schools serving students in a very low-income neighborhood. Now known as the Westminster Charter School, it’s charter was sponsored by the Buffalo Board of Education and it has become a nationally recognized model of school transformation — now the inspiration and centerpiece for a recently awarded $6 Million federal Promise Neighborhood grant.

We — the taxpayers of the City of Mount Vernon– need to get involved in our schools. We need to look at what is working elsewhere; what is being done and spent here; why; who is making the decisions; and what are the outcomes?

Most people from inside (and outside) our city assume that the School District and the City are one in the same.

Some of us know the School District and the City are two completely independent entities which — for the most part — are not working in harmony to create efficiencies, champion best practices, and to achieve optimum outcomes for the children and taxpayers in Mount Vernon.

We just can’t allow this to continue for one more week — we need radical change in the City Charter and in our School District governance model — NOW!