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Commission warns about NY gov pension savings plan

Michael Gormley, Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- The independent Citizens Budget Commission on Monday warned that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's pension proposal designed to help struggling local governments will instead endanger communities and cost their taxpayers more.

The nonpartisan budget watchdog joined a growing group of critics of one of the few proposals offered by Cuomo to help hundreds of cities, towns, counties and school districts facing fiscal crisis. The plan would allow local governments to choose to use a fixed, lower rate for current skyrocketing pension costs by assuming projected savings over 25 years through a new pension system.

"We believe this proposal would endanger the future financial viability of the pension plans and recommend you reject it," CBC President Carol Kellermann said. The messaged was directed to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the sole trustee of the massive state pension system, who is reviewing Cuomo's option included in his 2013-14 budget proposal.

An internal budget analysis obtained by The Associated Press on Monday also projects Cuomo's proposal would cost Syracuse city government and its taxpayers $124 million more over 25 years.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has raised concerns since January about Cuomo's proposal as risky and ineffective for hundreds of local governments facing fiscal crises statewide. She says other options are needed to help communities avoid insolvency despite years of layoffs and cutbacks.

"There isn't any one solution," she said in an interview Monday. "This alone is not a long-term, sustainable solution."

Miner said the cost would be enough to replace a water main system in a city with infrastructure that's already over 100 years old.

"That's real money that could go to real services, key services," she said.

Miner, a Democrat, said mayors are faced with rising pension and labor costs while populations and tax bases shrink. That forces cuts in police, fire and other personnel and facilities.

A week ago, Gates town Supervisor Mark Assini, a former Kodak fiscal analyst, said his Monroe County town would also be hurt if it chose to participate in Cuomo's proposal. Other local officials have supported Cuomo's proposal, although it's one of the few significant proposals currently on the table to deal with the pension problem.

Cuomo's office has countered such criticisms.

Budget spokesman Morris Peters said they're based on "faulty assumptions and a misunderstanding of the proposal." The plan counts on lower costs years from now and is designed to avoid any spikes, he said.

"The proposal was carefully designed to be fiscally neutral to the funds, and we included multiple protections to guarantee that it is," Peters said.

But the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute that studies Albany policy said Cuomo's answers merely raise more questions.

"They have not issued their own numbers," said senior fellow E.J. McMahon. "I don't think any public sector expert, and certainly no independent pension expert, would endorse this. It is exactly the thing government should not do."

He said Miner, who questioned the proposal at length in a legislative budget hearing, isn't alone.

"This is a form of borrowing from the future in a risky way," McMahon said Monday. "She is, by far, not alone."

DiNapoli had no immediate comment, but has said he is concerned about Cuomo's proposal.