Yonkers' financial future looks brighter this week than any time since the last state Emergency Financial Control Board packed up and left town in 1998. Credit an attitude change in city-state relations, election-year politics, state realization that high-needs school districts such as Yonkers require increased funding, and the city's own willingness to contribute to that funding for the proposed $84.7 million state-aid package that will greatly ease the district's $100 million budget shortfall.
The breakdown: $20.7 million in increased municipal aid; $20 million in state aid to magnet schools; $20 million to help offset costs related to the planned video-lottery casino at Yonkers Raceway; and $24 million to help bring about a proposed downtown redevelopment. The municipal and magnet-school aid and the raceway revenue would be recurring, said Sen. Nicholas Spano, R-Yonkers. That comes close to making up the non-recurring, one-shot revenue that balanced the current city budget.
Spano announced the package at his Yonkers office, surrounded by invited, happy-to-be-at-the-party, politicians. What a difference from the grim and sweaty news conference of December 2003 that patched together a last-minute effort to avoid school layoffs and program cuts that eventually happened anyway. This year's aid which was approved by the state Senate and Assembly as part of a budget agreement but needs Gov. George Pataki's approval should help settle new contracts for the teachers' and school Civil Service unions, whose contracts expired June 30, 2003.
Spano, who won re-election by 18 votes two years ago, did much of the heavy lifting, but there is plenty of credit to go around for city and state officials. Pataki, for example, proposed the raceway revenue and the money to uncover parts of the Saw Mill River earlier this year. The river project would be part of the downtown funding.
Mayor Phil Amicone made "building partnerships" with Albany part of his State of the City address earlier this month. That was a sea-change from the confrontational tactics of his predecessor, John Spencer, which were successful in getting more state aid year by year but created hard feelings in the process. Cooperation can work much better. Amicone and the City Council realized the necessity of raising their own taxes, and the state Legislature has apparently acknowledged that the district has been underfunded. Surely the state does not want to deal endlessly with court decisions such as that in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity case, which has ordered more money sent to New York City schools.
Yonkers successfully sued the state to win a $300 million settlement payable over five years in its federal school desegregation case. However, no plans were made to replace that money when the final payment was made, which came this year. A Yonkers-funded group filed suit again in March 2005 on grounds the state was underfunding the district.
Perhaps a new deaI can now be worked out so that suit can be withdrawn. That would be a savings for the state and city, which could spend the money in the classroom instead of the courtroom.