Saratoga County

Real estate tax eyed

County officials are looking into creating a real estate transfer tax to pay for open space preserva

County officials are looking into creating a real estate transfer tax to pay for open space preservation, and maybe also a new property tax break for community public safety volunteers.

Doing either would require the state Legislature’s granting the county special permission, but the county board’s Legislative and Research Committee is pursuing the ideas.

The committee this week voted to support a request to the Legislature to allow communities to adopt the real estate transfer tax, but the idea still needs to be adopted by the county Board of Supervisors.

“It is a tax, but it is not a property tax,” said committee Chairman Paul Sausville, R-Malta, a supporter of the proposal. “It is a tax on moving real estate.”

The New York State Association of Realtors has opposed such transfer taxes in other places, and real estate agents are likely to oppose the idea here, since it raises the cost of certain real estate transactions.

“If the benefit is for the whole county then the tax should on the whole county, not just a specific group,” said Stuart Thomas of Reality Realty in Saratoga Springs, president-elect of the Saratoga Schenectady Schoharie Association of Realtors. He said the idea is too new for the association to have taken a formal position.

Sausville has been a supporter of the so-called Community Preservation Act since state legislators first floated the idea a few years ago.

“I think it sends a great message out there to our constituents who support the [county] green infrastructure plan,” he said.

Malta and other communities in the Northway corridor are where land is under the greatest development pressure, and several of them have already established open space funds. The tax could provide a source of ongoing revenue for those funds.

“We are always trying to balance growth and preservation of open space,” said Supervisor Joanne Yepsen, D-Saratoga Springs, another supporter.

The state Legislature has passed bills allowing real-estate transfer taxes in some communities on Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, but until now Saratoga County officials haven’t seriously discussed it.

The concept is to place a new fee, up to 2 percent, on the most expensive real estate sales — those above the county median price. The money would be used for buying land outright to keep open, or buying the development rights to farmland. Each town, village and city in the county could choose to enact the tax but wouldn’t be required to.

With open land in the county under persistent development pressure, preservation advocates have called for the county to find a dedicated source of funding beyond the $500,000, which was just raised to $750,000, appropriated each year from the county general fund.

Committee member Supervisor Mary Ann Johnson, R-Day, said she didn’t think the committee had enough information to make a decision, and abstained from the vote.

A request to the state Legislature would require approval from the full county Board of Supervisors, and the committee discussion is only a first step.

The other idea being talked about at Sausville’s initiative would give volunteer firefighters and ambulance workers an exemption on their local fire and ambulance property taxes. The committee has yet to act on it.

“I think it has a lot of merit countywide,” Sausville said.

If the roughly 1,800 volunteer firefighters and 250 ambulance volunteers in the county didn’t have to pay fire and ambulance district taxes, it would be an incentive for volunteers and a way for communities to reward their service, Sausville said.

While granting the exemptions would mean other residents would pay higher fire and ambulance taxes, Sausville argued it’s only a small amount: less than $5 in most communities on the annual tax bill of a $200,000 house.

The county is seeking input from firefighters, and the committee could discuss it again in March. Firefighters have expressed a concern that the change not result in their losing any other benefits.

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