ITHACA, NY – On Tuesday, the Tompkins County legislature was essentially left with no choice but to pass a resolution authorizing a state-mandated $25,000 pay increase to Tompkins Distract Attorney Gwen Wilkinson.
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In December, New York State approved an increase in all State judge salaries in 2016 and 2018, increasing them to $183,000 in 2016 and $203,000 in 2018. State law also requires that pay for county district attorneys be equal to or greater than those same salaries.
Wilkinson’s salary was raised from $156,200 to $183,000, retroactive to April 1. A total of $29,288 was pulled from the county’s contingent fund to cover the salary increase and fringe costs to cover the last three quarters of 2016. The total annual cost increase would be around $40,000.
The issue isn’t whether or not Wilkinson deserves the raise. What frustrated Tompkins lawmakers is the fact that for the past 50 years, this state-mandated increase was paid for by the state. This time, the counties — and by extension, their taxpayers — are left to pick up the bill.
Legislator Will Burbank noted that while this is a state mandate, some counties had apparently opted to ignore the mandate. He inquired what the consequences of that might be.
“The state always finds a way to sanction or somehow get the money to the right place. Specifically, I don’t know what they would do.” County Administrator Joe Mareane said.
“They’re bigger than we are, unfortunately,” added Legislature Chair Mike Lane.
The legislature expressed its frustration through an accompanying resolution urging the state to reimburse counties for this increase. According to the resolution, for many counties such a salary increase represents approximately one third of their total allowable property tax growth under New York’s tax cap system.
That resolution passed unanimously. “I’d raise two hands if I could,” said Legislator Anna Kelles.
This is the latest in an ongoing struggle between New York State and its counties on the subject of unfunded mandates. As Lane expressed in his opening remarks in 2015:
They require [unfunded mandates] to be paid, not from the State’s broad-based income taxes, but from the counties’ real property taxes. It’s alarming. Seventy-four percent of Tompkins County’s real property tax goes directly to pay those mandates that we do not control. Meanwhile, roads, bridges, law enforcement services, youth, elderly, health, library, and mental health programs, to name a few, all suffer from lack of proper funding.
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