How does it feel to live in a county that is on the list of highest property-taxed counties in the entire United States? Specifically, Schenectady County has the 12th highest property tax, as a percentage of home values, of the thousands of U.S. counties.
But Gov. Cuomo has a solution. His tax commission program is offering a property tax freeze as part of a three-step program.
In the first year, homeowners in jurisdictions that adopt local budgets that stay within the 2 percent tax cap will receive a tax rebate equal to the increase in their tax bill. This option would effectively freeze taxes for homeowners at their 2014 levels. This also provides an incentive to school districts and local governments to keep growth in their real property tax levy at or below the real property tax cap.
In the second year, the freeze would be provided only to those local governments and school districts that once again abide by the 2 percent tax cap and also, most importantly, develop and agree to implement a plan of shared services and administrative consolidations with other locals.
The commission believes that local governments could intensify their efforts to become more efficient through consolidation and shared services.
The real issue here is to get the local government leaders, supervisors, department heads, etc., to take this seriously. It is therefore incumbent upon the local taxpayers to push their local administrations to be creative. My view is there are many opportunities to combine and share resources.
Let’s look at the obvious ones, starting with property assessment staff and organization. One official assessor, for example, could also assess the property in Niskayuna, Glenville and Scotia, using the local staffs.
The assessment rules, issued by the state, are all the same. In the long run, after initial small steps, one assessor could be responsible for assessing all the towns in Schenectady County.
Another is road maintenance. All the roads in Schenectady County are maintained the same, plowed the same and rebuilt the same when needed. The departments could share services and even staff. Perhaps one department head could be responsible for all the roads in the county, excluding the city of Schenectady.
I can hear the complaining already from the various departments as to why none of this is possible. After all, it upsets the status quo. But Cuomo is serious and we should all be serious — after all it’s our money.
The requirement for the second year of the tax freeze is that the shared service plan only needs to achieve savings equal to 1 percent on the combined tax levy. In the next year the savings need only be 2 percent, and 3 percent by year three of implementation. Can any local official say they can’t meet such meager targets?
The work to accomplish these sharing/ consolidation services will be extensive and complicated, so the towns should start now. If some town leaders are reluctant to share, we should consider voting them out of office.
There is a further need to provide relief to taxpayers who are already over-burdened by the current level of property taxation. The commission recommends that the state develop a program that would target property tax relief based on an individual homeowner’s ability to pay. Currently, low- and middle-income taxpayers face an effective real property tax that exceeds the tax they pay under the income tax.
A relief program could be structured to provide a greater proportion of benefits to those with the highest burdens as a share of their income. Such a program would be based on a tax “circuit breaker.”
The “breaker” would limit total local property taxes to a set percentage of gross income. For some seniors, the property tax is more than 10 percent of their retirement income. This is excessive for those with fixed low income.
These burdens on home ownership make homes unaffordable for many New Yorkers. They also have a negative impact on New York’s economy. Young families will choose to avoid high-tax areas when deciding where to live and work. Senior citizens are being forced to leave New York upon reaching retirement age, electing to live in areas of the country with lower costs of living.
Let us support this Cuomo initiative and email or call local town leaders. It’s our money.
Don Cazer lives in Niskayuna. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.