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Vital state services face decline under Pataki rule

Here’s a success story for those of you who think the best government is that which governs least. Last budget year, the boiler inspection staff at the state Department of Labor was cut in half and inspections reduced from annually to every two years. A big savings to taxpayers and regulatory relief for employers, right?
Not quite. There have been 12 accidents this year, causing three deaths and six injuries. There were none in 1994, before the cutbacks. What cost-benefit analysis can justify the cost of those lives?
The perennially late state budget is an easy target for frustrated business owners and angry taxpayers alike: Big and incomprehensible, it’s a lightning rod for the blame for what’s happened to New York State.
But the draconian budget cuts proposed by Gov. George Pataki won’t cut bloated bureaucracy as much as it will lay waste to the Empire State, destroying in a few short years what it has taken generations to build.
In fact, the governor’s budget was so devastating that even the Republican- controlled Senate collaborated with the Democratic Assembly to restore critical services axed by the governor. And although every department and agency statewide face severe cuts, the Rochester region is likely to be hit much harder than ever before.
We’re not talking about paper-pushing bureaucrats, either. The worker-protection staff at the Department of Labor work quietly every day to ensure both public and worker safety. Locally they do things like inspect the rides at Seabreeze, ski lifts at Bristol Mountain, factory elevators and public assembly areas like movie theaters.
State prisons bulging with 14,000 more inmates and 290 fewer program staff over the last few years are now faced with the governor’s proposal to eliminate another 313 positions. Most of the local inmates will be returning to our community in less than four years. Parolees without the skills to find work or the ability to deal with drug or alcohol problems–or with an infectious disease–threaten the health and safety of our community.
Contrary to the good-business principles Gov. Pataki espouses so fervently, he continues to push for privatizing transportation work, despite proof that state engineers are more cost-effective than private consultants. Former Comptroller Ned Regan–a Republican, by the way–found, for example, that state engineers cost only 60 percent of what a private consultant charges.
The proposed deferred-capital program for highways and bridges will be felt locally, both in lost construction jobs and in a decline in Rochester’s infrastructure. With traffic projected to double in the next two decades, crumbling roads and bridges pose a serious threat to our ability to attract and retain strong local businesses.
Many of the cuts in the state Education Department’s budget threaten our schoolchildren’s safety and remove protections that actually save tax dollars. The state operates or supports schools throughout the state that serve handicapped children; the governor’s proposals would transfer costs for handicapped children to local school districts and eliminate requirements on class sizes and staff-to-student ratios.
The state Department of Motor Vehicles district office is slated to be closed in 1996. Located in the renovated Sibley’s Building downtown, it’s the only state DMV office between Buffalo and Syracuse, and the only provider of motor-vehicle services for those who work or live in the city. Not only does this office provide a wide range of important services, but the downtown DMV presence is an important part of Rochester’s Vision 2000 revitalization program, bringing 250,000 people a year downtown and generating business for local merchants.
And the budget cuts will hit the Rochester Psychiatric Center especially hard on issues involving quality of care, health and safety, and access to care. Fewer staff will be pushed past the limit as they struggle to care for severely and persistently ill people with increased medical needs. Meanwhile, the new $80 million RPC facility will be underutilized as new patients are refused and current patients are transferred to other facilities.
Regulatory reform has been one of the governor’s watchwords, much touted by former County Executive Bob King. Staff reductions at the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Regulatory Services Unit may have pinched a few pennies, but they’ve also delayed the DEC’s ability to issue permits on time. In 1995, 75 percent of more than 26,500 final permit decisions were issued on time; in 1996, less than half of these decisions will be made on time.
The governor proposed eliminating the lakes-management program, which monitors the state’s lakes and generates tremendous economic benefits from tourism. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that not many people are going to visit polluted lakes. New York is already dead last among all 50 states in the percentage of its budget invested in environmental and natural resources. Further cuts simply threaten our own health and squander our children’s legacy.
A lot of New York voters sat on their hands while George Pataki was elected governor by the slimmest possible margin. They may have been frustrated with the Cuomo administration, but to interpret the Pataki victory as an invitation to wholesale dismantling of vital state services is a political mistake that is guaranteed to make Mr. Pataki a one-term governor and to saddle New York businesses and citizens with a damaged state infrastructure that may well take generations to repair.
(Ronald Pettengill is president of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO.)


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