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As she begins her 10th year as Monroe County executive, Maggie Brooks' priorities are unchanged and her future beyond the end of her term at the end of 2015 is uncertain.
Following her unsuccessful challenge of Rep. Louise Slaughter for the 25th Congressional District seat last year, Brooks is focusing on what has made her successful as county executive and the top Republican in the Rochester area.
"We started with key priorities of budget stability, trying to do more with less, and focusing on jobs and economic development and quality of life," said Brooks, county executive since 2004.
"Those are still the priorities. Every year, they take on a little different nuance, but essentially they're the same."
The 2013 budget maintains a property tax rate of $8.99 for the sixth straight year, despite state and federal mandates that now command 83 percent of the spending plan, Brooks said.
Economic development is centered around the Eastman Business Park, as it is with the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council.
As for her plans when her third and final four-year term as county executive ends in 34 months, Brooks said she is not sure.
"I'm 58," she said. "I still have a few good years. I've never been one to sit down and say here's my plan, in five years or 10 years I want to be here. I've never been like that.
"I look at opportunity as it presents itself. I make decisions based on the information I have at that time. So far, I've been very fortunate, knock on wood, to be able to do things within this community, with the support of voters because, without their support, I can't have this job or any other job that I've had."
Her next job likely will be a personal decision rather than a professional one, Brooks said.
"My husband's 65 years old this year," she said. "He is looking at retirement. My children are grown. I have one grandchild and a second that will be born in March. As you get to be my age, you look at life through a different lens.
"Let's face it, this is a very busy job. Most nights I'm not home. I'm working most weekends. It's a very intense job. I always have to have my game face on. So you look at your life and put all of that in context."
The county executive post is limited to three terms, the result of county legislation passed in 1993 and implemented in 1996.
"There are things I like about term limits; there are things I don't," Brooks said. "If there weren't term limits, that might be a different decision as well. But there are, and I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing."
Another run for Congress is possible, Brooks said.
"I would never rule anything out," she said. "The popularity of our current president made this a Democratic community last year. It was very tough to be a Republican in those circumstances. The politics weren't on our side.
"Having said that, I'm proud of what we did. We had a lot of support, financially and otherwise."
A job in the private sector also is possible, said Brooks, a former Monroe County clerk and television news reporter.
"There might be an opportunity to take some of the skills I've learned throughout my time in government and, before that, in the private sector and broadcasting," she said. "The possibilities are endless.
"I'm not ready to quit. I still think I have a lot to offer."
Her ride has not always been smooth, with frequent charges of partisanship from Democrats.
"Obviously, Republicans are in the majority in the Legislature, and Maggie works closely with them, as best I can tell," said Carrie Andrews, D-Rochester and minority leader in the Legislature. "But getting information out of the administration is like pulling teeth.
"Debate is frequently stifled. A lot of our questions, and issues that we try to raise or discuss, are ruled out of order or we're told it's an inappropriate time to ask. It's hard to work with that."
Brooks says she has governed in a bipartisan fashion as county executive.
"Maggie's a nice person," Andrews said. "I think she's smart. I think there's room for improvement in terms of working with Democrats on issues in the county Legislature, as well as increasing the transparency of the operations of the county.
"And I think she should be more straightforward with the people in Monroe County about where the county actually stands fiscally."
The mandate battle
At the moment, Brooks is focused on state mandates. She was in Albany on Feb. 4-6 for the New York State Association of Counties' 2013 legislative conference.
More than 800 county officials convened to discuss New York's new gun-control laws, funding for counties' 911 communications, public health reforms, pension costs, Medicaid costs and other issues.
"We passed a platform that focuses on our key priorities for the year," Brooks said. "Mandate reform is always at the top of the list.
"We continue to talk about the nine programs that are driving up county costs and, in some cases, consuming more than 100 percent of the tax levy in counties across the state, and really trying to figure out how can we work with the governor and the (state) Legislature to advance some reforms in those nine areas."
Pension-cost growth for counties in 2013 will total $135 million, NYSAC officials said. Medicaid-cost growth ranks second among the nine programs at $44 million this year.
Some relief is on the horizon, with a cap on Medicaid programs expected to be implemented fully at the end of 2014.
"You can't fight too many battles at once," Brooks said. "We've learned that. The Medicaid cap will be a full cap on the growth of Medicaid. That's a big commitment that the state has taken on, to absorb all the growth. It's a program that continues to grow in disproportional measure."
Brooks is an asset to NYSAC, Executive Director Stephen Acquario said, particularly because of her relationship with Robert Duffy, the former Rochester mayor and current lieutenant governor.
"Maggie brings a wealth of experience to the organization statewide," Acquario said.
Brooks lobbied extensively at the NYSAC conference, he said.
"She has made her case to the state delegation from Monroe County, and having this connection to the lieutenant governor makes for a special relationship between the administration and Monroe County," he said.
"She sat directly in front of Lt. Gov. Duffy during his speech to the membership, and we took the message directly to Gov. Cuomo at the governor's mansion the next night. She brought the concerns of Western New York, of Monroe County, directly to the administration. I'm really grateful she is where she is, and is able to contribute to this dialogue."
Pension reform is another hot topic for local governments.
"In Monroe County, our pension costs have gone up 141 percent since 2010," Brooks said. "It's not that we're retiring more people. We're paying them more to retire. Our contribution to the state is more. That's based on what resources are needed to fully fund the (state) pension program. Again, that's not sustainable."
Many governments are borrowing from the $140 billion New York State Common Retirement Fund to pay pensions. More than $750 million was borrowed in 2012, and at least $1 billion is likely to be borrowed this year, data compiled by the non-profit Sunshine Review shows.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in his 2013-14 executive budget, would allow municipalities and school districts the option of stable contributions-called smoothing-to the retirement fund over five years as Tier VI pension reforms passed last year begin to materialize.
Monroe County could save $22.5 million in fiscal 2014 by participating, and $78.2 million over five years, estimates provided by the governor's office indicate. The city of Rochester could save $21.2 million and $76.4 million.
"We are one of the counties that borrow to pay our pension costs, and I don't think that's good public policy," Brooks said. "I don't think any county that's borrowing would tell you that's good policy.
"There's a lot of risk embedded in the pension smoothing proposal. We have some information. We don't have a lot of information. Essentially, what this opportunity does is say to counties you can pay less, but understand that the pension fund will be underfunded for a certain amount of time. At some point, somebody has to make that whole."
Mandates, combined with a property tax cap passed by the state in 2011, have made budget balancing more difficult. The tax cap limits the annual increase in tax levies to 2 percent or the rate of inflation unless overridden by local entities.
"It's a lot more challenging to put the budget together, but we were very pleased because we did keep the tax rate flat, which I know some people talked a lot about at the time the budget was approved," Brooks said.
The $1.18 billion plan includes a 0.6 percent increase in the tax levy, and new fees-often called chargebacks-for county services such as snow plowing and indigent burials.
"I think it's inaccurate to say taxes have not increased during her tenure," Andrews said. "Maggie likes to highlight the tax rate, which is only one piece of the tax bill.
"The reality is the county executive has increasingly relied on chargebacks as a way to increase revenue coming into the county. While chargebacks aren't included in the tax rate, they are still on every person's tax bill in the county."
Chargebacks have increased to more than $40 million, Andrews said, from approximately $10 million in 2004 when Brooks took the county executive seat.
"That's a 300 percent increase under her tenure," Andrews said.
The largest chargeback in this year's budget is an estimated $18 million for Monroe Community College, Andrews said. That funding will be supplied by town governments, based on the number of students in their jurisdictions.
The county Board of Elections will receive a chargeback of some $5.8 million, she said. Another $5.3 million will come from suburban residents to have their roads plowed.
The new fees raise the tax rate to $10.29 per $1,000 of assessed property value, recent calculations by the Legislature minority showed.
"For the first time-and I think this got lost in the conversation-we were able to apply a fund balance to closing that structural gap that we see year-to-year because of mandates," Brooks said.
"Slowly reducing our workforce, slowly reducing health care costs, internal streamlining and consolidation are finally paying off, and we're actually seeing that as it relates to spending. We're able to spend less because some of those consolidations have kicked in."
The county finished 2012 with a surplus of $2.5 million, Brooks said.
Eastman Business Park
The county's economic development priorities mirror those of the regional council, with the Eastman Business Park at the top of the list.
The Finger Lakes council was awarded $96.2 million for 76 projects by state officials in December. It is the largest funding of any of the state's 10 economic development councils.
"I think there's an agreement that we're all going to kind of coalesce around the council priorities," Brooks said. "I am in lock step with the things that have been identified, whether it's the college campus projects, whether it's Midtown. We want to finish Midtown. We don't want to move on to something else until that's completed.
"And I think the Eastman Business Park is going to rise to be the top priority in this community. It's the largest industrial park in the United States. We have 7,500 people working there now, and most of them are not Kodak. We need to continue to grow and sustain that park because, if that fails, it's like the transformation of Kodak all over again."
The regional council is a new entry among the area's economic development groups and initiatives. Others include the Rochester Business Alliance Inc., Greater Rochester Enterprise Inc. and the Unshackle Upstate coalition of businesses, which has become a lobbying entity in recent years.
"When I became the county executive in 2004, government was really the only entity truly focused on job creation and job retention," Brooks said. "People looked at government and said what are you guys doing to make sure that we're attracting new business, keeping the companies that we have. Fast forward to 2013, we really have a team working in Monroe County.
"We have all sectors coming together: city, county, government, higher education, labor, the private sector, the non-profit sector."
Unlike some other regions, Brooks said, the Rochester area was well-positioned to embrace its economic development council.
"There is a lot of collaboration here," she said. "That team aspect has allowed us to really focus on a parallel course; (it's) a focus on bringing in the new but making sure we don't lose what we already have.
"That's really government's key role: the retention. Working with over 1,000 companies, we've retained almost 75,000 jobs since I've been county executive. Those are the things that continue to be priorities. Without jobs, not much else matters."
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