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Devil’s in the details of a state commission report that sounds a lot better than it reads

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, saying he was worried about the extreme tax onus on New Yorkers, appointed an all-star commission led by former Gov. George E. Pataki and former Comptroller H. Carl McCall to make recommendations to cut the overall tax burden on state residents.

The commission’s report was issued last week, to huzzahs from the governor and low-key grumbling from nearly everywhere else. There were enough unpopular suggestions in the document to make any number of groups, from the state Legislature to your local school board, not very happy. It will be interesting to see if the governor can jam these proposals through the legislature.

One proposal that has local elected officials upset would provide a carrot-and-stick measure to compel local municipalities and school districts to pay close attention to the state’s titular 2 percent property-tax-levy cap. Under the proposal, the state would effectively put a freeze on property tax bills for any school district or municipality that stays within the 2 percent cap by sending rebate checks for the difference between the 2013 and 2014 tax bill. On the surface, this sounds like a winner to most property owners. Any year taxes don’t rise is a win.

Look under the hood, though, and it looks a lot like a Wankel. First, it has ticked off New York City property owners and politicians because the city is not part of the tax cap legislation. Members of the state Legislature from the many districts within New York City are calling the proposal unfair because city property owners are automatically excluded.

And while taxpayers may see it as a good thing, both school districts and municipalities are looking at it as a form of extortion, putting pressure on them to reduce spending while placing no such burden on the state. As many north country county leaders have pointed out, the property tax levy is the major funding source for local governments, while state mandates and local participation in state programs, such as welfare and the state pension system, provide 80 percent or more of the spending paid for by the tax levy.

As the chairman of the Lewis County Legislature, Michael A. Tabolt, pointed out, increases in pension-fund contributions alone could force a levy increase of more than 2 percent in counties with relatively small budgets.

For municipalities, failure to obtain a rebate for property owners will be highly unpopular. But it won’t have an immediate effect; residents can’t force budget reductions because county, town and village budgets are not subject to referendum. Taxpayers’ only recourse is at the ballot box, and the rebate issue becomes only one of many issues that affect elections.

For school districts, the proposal presents an entirely different dilemma. School boards, unlike municipal boards, must take their budgets to the voters every year. Under the tax cap law, it requires a 60 percent vote for a district to pass a budget that exceeds the 2 percent cap. Already, school boards have a higher standard to meet just to exceed the cap. This little lagniappe from the state could be enough incentive for school budget voters to say no to a budget that offers a 3 percent increase, even though that budget may not be unreasonable.

As numerous north country school officials point out, the tax cap has already brought about drastic reductions in staffing and programs. Several schools have 50 or more fewer employees than they had even a couple of years ago. Classes have been dropped out of cost concerns; General Brown Central School almost lost a regents-level physics teaching position this year because, until the last minute, it couldn’t find someone to teach the class for half-time pay.

Yet the state offers no mandate relief to municipalities. And it continues to steal back education aid through the back-door practice of the gap-elimination adjustment, a nifty trick wherein it says publicly that a district’s operating aid will be, say, $8 million, but then it takes back $500,000 with the adjustment in order to balance the state’s books.

If the state wants to reduce property taxes, it could start paying a fairer share of social welfare programs to relieve counties of that burden, it could stop stealing from school districts to make its own state budget look better and it could provide an adequate level of aid to education to allow our schools to meet the increasing burden of teaching the core curriculum. Anything less will just be political hooey.

Any time the state tells you it’s giving you something for nothing, like a property-tax rebate, grab your wallet and lock your doors.

Perry White is the Times city editor. He can be reached at pwhite@wdt.net.

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