By Tom Precious
ALBANY -– In a further sign of trouble for one of his signature budget proposals, more than than 100 local officials across the state have signed onto a letter criticizing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest property tax plan.
Lawmakers and groups representing various levels of local governments -– schools, counties and others -- have already raised concerns in recent days and weeks that Cuomo’s property tax freeze plan ignores the realities of rising costs of local government services, many of which are mandated by the state but not paid for by Albany.
The new letter from local elected officials -– from towns, villages and cities across the state -– was organized by a coalition of groups opposing Cuomo’s plan, including the Working Families Party.
The local officials, in a “Dear Albany’’ letter, said governments across New York have been cutting police, fire and sanitation services in recent years, especially since Albany has reduced the level of state aid it provides localities over the years and the enactment of a 2 percent property tax cap several years ago that has slowed revenues at a time when mandated costs keep rising.
The local officials said the governor’s proposal “will only exacerbate the problems we face on a daily basis. We do not believe the $1 billion property tax freeze as proposed in the executive budget is practical,’’ they wrote.
The governor’s plan will provide modest savings in the form of a rebate check to individual homeowners in upstate as compared to downstate residents, where property taxes are among the nation’s highest. Upstate property taxes, when measured against income levels, have some of the highest levels in the country.
In the second year of the Cuomo plan, local taxpayers will only get a property tax break from the state if their local taxing jurisdiction -– school district, county, town –- stays within the limits of the state’s annual property tax cap and submits a plan to share services, consolidate or merge with other nearby localities.
Localities, though, say that many have already enacted shared service agreements and other consolidation efforts in recent years, and that those plans will not be grandfathered into the Cuomo property tax freeze equation. The local officials, in their letter, said that the main state revenue-sharing program for local governments across New York is down 75 percent since 1980 when adjusted for inflation.
“We urge you to reject forced property tax freezes and forced consolidation and mergers,’’ the local officials wrote.
The letter was signed by county clerks, county legislators, city council members, town supervisors, library board members, highway superintendents, city treasurers, a county comptroller and mayors, including Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who Cuomo handpicked several years ago to be co-chair of the state Democratic Party. They include local officials from Western and Central New York, the Southern Tier, Long Island and the Hudson Valley.
West Seneca Supervisor Sheila Meegan, a Democrat, said her town and others across the state are already struggling to live under the state’s tax cap while having to provide state-mandated services.
“For our municipality, we’re actually looking for greater communication with the governor and (relief) from unfunded mandates. That’s where we’re getting killed,’’ Meegan said in an interview this morning. She criticized a system in which Albany “is dictating to us’’ how to run localities without providing the payments for services the state requires.
“We would hope some of these mandates they forced on municipalities would get paid by the state,’’ she said.
UPDATE: Larry Schwartz, secretary to the governor, pushed back against the criticism by local officials. "It's clear that some local officials don't want to be held accountable by taxpayers for staying within the cap and taking action to share services, reduce costs and lower property taxes. Under the governor's plan, local governments and schools will be responsible for taking the right steps to get their fiscal houses in order, much like the state has already done so,'' Schwartz said in a written statement this afternoon.