Gov. Cuomo is out there pushing hard for his property tax control programs in New York state. He began with the 2 percent tax cap on schools and municipalities three years ago and now proposes a “tax freeze” and “circuit breaker” initiative offering a rebate to homeowners from a projected $2 billion state surplus over the next two years. These ideas are being promoted in regional meetings and even through Town Hall conference calls that he is hosting statewide.
As mayor of the village of Scotia, I would like to point out why the governor’s proposals are bad for small communities and ignore the real problem with property taxes in our state.
With his rebate proposals, the governor is attempting to buy himself votes in this election year by forcing a tax freeze on local communities while ignoring the cost drivers that make our property taxes so high.
It appears the governor’s real agenda is to drive local governments out of existence, and he is relying on the public’s distaste for taxes to do so.
His formula is simple: Saddle local governments with expensive state mandates and then limit their ability to pay with a 2 percent tax cap. Then turn taxpayers against their local government by offering tax rebates tied to a set of conditions that are impossible to accomplish without dismantling our communities.
The governor’s views on local governments, which he calls an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, ignore the fact that local governments are the most responsive and efficient way to provide services to a community.
So why are our property taxes so high? The governor insists that things can be made cheaper by consolidating or sharing services, but in our community we have already done that. The list of shared and cooperative services between the town, county and village is extensive.
So why do costs keep going up at an unacceptable rate? The real cost drivers to the taxpayer are the unfunded state mandates paid for through local property taxes.
All state and local government employees continue to get pensions, while almost every private industry has done away with these. Pension costs to local municipalities have gone up by 750 percent since 2003. Why, in this economy, does the state still offer taxpayer-funded pensions to new employees?
The unions for police and fire departments are afforded binding arbitration in contract disputes, so that if a local government tries to hold the line on contractual costs, a state arbitrator steps in and awards raises and benefits based on what other communities elsewhere in the state have been awarded.
How does this make any sense, and how could a small upstate village afford the same benefit package as a place like Westchester County?
Municipalities are mandated to adhere to a prevailing wage requirement for any capital project, meaning that a simple roofing job that would cost a homeowner $7,000, costs our community $21,000. Our ability to responsibly bid a job at a reasonable price has been removed.
Policemen and firefighters who are injured and must retire early get paid their full salary and wages, not until retirement age, but until age 70! An employee could be on the payroll at taxpayer expense for 45 years without doing a day’s work.
These examples and so many other burdens mandated by the state drive up the cost of small government and are structured to go onto local property tax bills, absolving the state from responsibility. When the governor proposed his 2 percent cap, he promised to relieve us of these mandates, but that did not happen. Consolidation and sharing of services will not make any of these overwhelming costs go away.
Now, Andrew Cuomo will pit residents against their community with his tax freeze proposal. There will be no relief from those crushing state mandates, but if local governments don’t adhere to the 2 percent tax cap, residents will suffer by not getting a tax rebate. No credit beyond the first year will be given for past efforts to reduce costs, and any efforts taken going forward must show countywide savings.
The proposed programs favor consolidation whether it makes sense or not. If Gov. Cuomo has his way, you will call the county if there is a stranger in your neighborhood, if your fire hydrant is blocked with snow, or if your neighbor’s property looks bad. How well will these local complaints be addressed when police and code enforcement become countywide services?
Gov. Cuomo has called local govermnets an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. He fails to recognize any difference between larger communities downstate and small upstate municipalities.
Local governments by their very nature are the most efficient and responsive in delivering services. There are no career politicians. Elected officials are members of the community, and we all pay the same taxes. Our government defines our community with our local code, laws, programs and services. Residents can walk in and talk to the people in charge. The inefficient bureaucracy that the governor worries about occurs in bigger government, not smaller.
Throughout this state communities have opted to reject dissolution of their villages and retain their identity by keeping intact their local governments and the personal nature of the services they provide.
The governor’s attempt to force his personal desire for centralized power on local communities is misguided and flies in the face of the freedoms we use to define ourselves as a state and nation.
If he would address the mandates his office imposes on local governments, all taxpayers would be in a better place. The question those who feel overtaxed should ask is, if the state has $2 billion to return to us as a tax rebate, why are we being taxed that money in the first place?
Kris Kastberg is the mayor of Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.