By JIMMY LAWTON
The New York State budget includes a property tax break for localities that meet certain requirements, but local officials remain uncertain as to how the $1.5 billion tax program will work.
The plan proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo begins with a refund to homeowners for the amount of a 2 percent increase in their property tax. However, the homeowners will only be eligible if the taxing entity stays under the state’s 2 percent cap, according to Potsdam Mayor Steve Yurgartis.
The rebate checks for homeowner’s will not be tied to actual spending decreases in future years, but counties and schools will be required to submit plans for reducing their spending through consolidation of services. Details on what constitutes shared service cost reductions remain vague.
Yurgartis said there are rumors that shared services cost reductions would include a three year look back, meaning that past efficiencies gained through shared services would count toward this goal. Yurgartis said he is not aware of how much savings would need to be shown.
In Canton Mayor Mary Ann Ashley agreed that details have been vague. She said she has not received information from state officials and has instead relied on updates from the New York Conference of Mayors.
“We’ve heard nothing official and what we have heard has changed,” she said. “It’s very confusing.”
Ashley said that’s frustrating for her, because she can’t give answers to constituents when she doesn’t have them herself.
“I’d like to receive answers from the state,” she said.
Yurgartis agreed that details on the plan have been muddy at best and added that he has not received any information regarding the details of the tax rebate program for legislators or the governor.
Gimmick, Not Solution
He said it’s hard to criticize a plan that will save taxpayers money, but added that this is “gimmick” not strategy for long-term tax relief.
“From my point of view this is not a structural solution the property tax problem,” he said.
Yurgartis said the governor’s plan is another way to squeeze local governments and schools into consolidation. Since his election the governor has stated that New York is burdened by excess overlapping small governments. Cuomo has trumpeted dissolution of villages as well as school consolidations. The state even offers grants for studies and hefty incentives for organizations that consolidate.
Yurgartis said the idea that dissolving saves money isn’t always true, citing Potsdam’s decision to retain its village following an extensive study.
“The governor is wrong in believing that all these local governments are wasteful,” he said. “I think the governor is trying to reduce the total cost of government, but this whole property tax proposal is just another stick that he is wielding to get consolidations.”
If the governor is serious about reducing property taxes, Yurgartis said, then the state needs to relieve excessive and expensive mandates that are pushed on to small governments. He said the state is guilty of shifting costs to reduce income taxes, but that drives up property taxes.
Business as Usual
St. Lawrence County Treasurer Kevin Felt said could not offer much detail on the property tax proposal either, but added that regardless of the plan the county aims to stay under the property tax cap and consolidate services that it can.
“It’s not going to change our budgeting process. We have a five year plan and I think the county intends to stick to it,” he said.
Ashley said Canton’s village will be doing the same thing.
“The goal of the board has been to decrease spending as well as taxes. We recently reduced the tax levy and rate by 2.4 percent,” she said. “And we’re going to keep working to keep taxes down in future,” she said.
Yurgartis said Potsdam is also unlikely to adjust its budget around the governor’s plan.
“The tax cap for me as mayor has no bearing on how the village operates. The village’s priority is always to keep taxes as low as possible and make sure we are providing the services we need.”