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School, county officials wary of state tax commission plan

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A proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Tax Relief Commission to reduce property taxes has brought mixed reviews from county officials in the north country, who agree with the state’s effort to reduce taxes but fault the commission for its apparent unwillingness to address mandated expenses.

The state currently has a cap on property tax increases of 2 percent per year or the rate of inflation, whichever is less.

The commission has proposed that the state provide a tax rebate to homeowners that is equal to the amount of the increase in their tax bill to those who reside in counties that manage to stay within the 2 percent cap.

Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said that while the county has always focused on lowering or keeping property taxes flat, the state’s proposal indicates an unwillingness to look at the ever-increasing share that state programs take from the county budget.

Property tax is undeniably the main revenue stream for the county, according to Mr. Hagemann.

“You can’t simply and arbitrarily take away the lifeblood of local government without a fair and equitable tradeoff,” Mr. Hagemann said.

State mandates cost more than 80 percent of the total property tax levy, according to Jefferson County’s 2014 Adopted Budget.

While the full impact of the proposal is not yet known, it has school officials as well as county administrators concerned.

“School districts are dependent on property taxes,” said Jack J. Boak, superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, adding that he had not received any information about the proposal.

No informational materials have been provided to schools since Gov. Cuomo announced the proposal, state Education Department spokeswoman Antonia Valentine acknowledged.

Mr. Boak said he worries that reducing property taxes could hurt school districts.

“There’s an awful lot implied in what has been proposed,” he said. “I am just wondering how they’d make up for the lost revenue that would go to the schools.”

Meanwhile, Lewis County legislative Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, also had just learned about the proposal.

“I don’t know if it changes anything for us,” he said. “We’ve always strived to contain our budget. If we go over, it’s because of necessity because the state has been unwilling to offer us relief from mandates.”

needed: mandate relief

Obstacles in creating the budget come from the state to begin with, Mr. Tabolt said.

“Roughly 90 percent of the county budget is state mandates that we have little or no control over,” the chairman said.

While property tax relief would be welcome, the state should get its own house in order before telling smaller municipalities to toe the line, St. Lawrence County Finance Committee Chairman Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said.

“I think the effort is noble to get the property taxes down but they need to cap our costs at 2 percent,” he said. “I think a lot of these state mandates are great ideas but when the state has a great idea, then the state should pay for it.”

Legislator Joseph R. Lightfoot, R-Ogdensburg, agreed the state should work harder at understanding the effect its decisions have on local governments.

“If they scratch themselves, we feel it,” he said.

Mr. Morrill is the architect of a five-year plan under which St. Lawrence County is reducing its property tax by more than 14 percent in 2014 in exchange for an increase in the sales tax. The plan calls for no more than a 2 percent tax increase in each of the remaining four years.

The county will have trouble meeting the goal if the cost hikes for pension contributions and other state-mandated programs is substantially higher than 2 percent, Mr. Morrill said.

“I think it’s going to be extremely challenging to meet the five-year plan, and the reason for that is unfunded mandates,” he said.

Needed: new thinking

The report does offer innovative thinking, County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said.

“I think it’s exactly what’s needed,” she said.

Meeting the goals of the county’s five-year plan will be tough but can be done so that property owners receive the state’s rebate check, she said.

“We’ll be able to say to our taxpayers, ‘We’ve met the criteria,’” she said.

If the commission’s proposal is enacted, the state should give credit for government efficiencies already in place, she said.

The county has reduced its workforce by 15 percent — which has slashed health insurance and pension costs — has eliminated its Certified Home Health Agency and transferred a public bus system to St. Lawrence NYSARC and a dental sealant program to Cerebral Palsy Association of Northern New York. It has a central salt and sand depot shared by Canton government agencies and a fuel island that is also shared. It has started a vendor management system in the county Highway Department that it may open up to other government groups and is looking at saving money on a joint purchasing program.

“We are always looking,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

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