Little things that count

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Eye from Albany
November 2003

Little things that count
by Paul M. Bray

When I think about Rural Preservation Companies, the network of over 70 non-profit housing and community development companies serving a great many small communities in the vast area that is rural New York State, the lyrics “it is the little things that count” keeps running through my mind.

Of course, in the modern world it seems we can’t do without mega corporations and big government, but it is often the little things that serve us best. The complexity and demand for productivity and efficiency that makes bigness a necessity is a significant challenge to small communities struggling to do costly sewer and water projects, provide affordable housing for those with special needs like aging New Yorkers, administer a Main Street Program and assist small businesses to grow or sometimes even just survive.

Navigating the federal, state and philanthropic funding entities and banks to accomplish these challenges is a difficult task for small local governments faced with the overwhelming challenge of maintaining day-to-day governmental services. Yet, the notion of home rule that both protects the perceived independence of local government and shields State government from many direct responsibilities to its citizens persists so these local governments are left for the most part to their own devices.

It is only logical that the rural preservation companies were created twenty years ago as a State’s way to assist local communities help themselves. By all accounts this very small program (costing the State approximately $5 million a year) has been a huge success. It has been successful enough to generate an estimated $26 million a year in economic activity. The companies leverage Federal, state and private funds through very sophisticated transactions with banks and developers.

So, are the rural preservation companies cheered, celebrated and supported in the halls of state government as a successful program? The simple answer is, NO. They are left to fight annually in the budget process for their survival and be a poster child for the dysfunction of state government.

For rural preservation companies as well as other small “little things that count”, the budget is the “whole nut” for their existence. Last year, for example, the Governor’s budget proposed a substantial cut to the companies’ the usual five million dollar appropriation. Blair Sebastian, Executive Director of the New York State Rural Housing Coalition, Inc., points out “the effort to secure budget restoration was exhausting and a huge drain on everyone involved”. Even though the budget outcome was in Sebastian’s word “positive”, an annual survival ritual for an effort with such a small margin hardly helps get the most out of an effort to revitalize rural New York.

One reason it takes so long to enact a state budget that they’ve gotten increasingly politicized. Almost every item is subject to a political tug of war. As a result, the house of the legislature fathering a program like Rural Preservation Companies ends up owning it and endlessly having to carry the load for its survival in the budget process. It is now unusual for a program to originate in the Assembly or Senate, prove itself and after a couple of years and then become accepted with some kind of tenure. Sure, programs should have to justify themselves at reasonable intervals, but once they’ve proved themselves their existence should not be annually challenged with a meat axe draining their ability to successfully go about their part of the public’s business.

Finding a way for Rural Housing Companies and the other “little things” to function without needing to annually run a stressful gauntlet is not easy. The usual proposed fix is creating a fund with a dedicated stream of revenue. Legislators and the governor are loath to create dedicated funds thereby tying their hands. Funds like the Environmental Protection Fund with their own revenue stream are subject to being raided for other funding purposes.

Another imperfect solution would be a bi-partisan program review commission created by the Assembly and Senate to provide periodic and transparent performance audits of agreed upon programs. This might help in the budget process if positive audits became accepted as a seal of approval facilitating budget support from both houses of the legislature and the governor.

There are no full fixes for most of the dysfunctions that come with politics, but it won’t hurt if we all were more conscious of the annual budget survival battles that the good “little things that count” in government have to endure.

Paul M. Bray is President of the P.M.Bray LLC, an Albany environmental and planning law firm. His e-mail address is pmbray@aol.com.