Here’s a shocker: Municipal leaders around New York are complaining about Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to freeze property taxes. He squeezes, they squeal.
It’s not that the municipalities don’t have legitimate issues with the state. Unfunded mandates are a burden that requires Albany’s attention. But they’re still missing the point. Part of the problem – a big part of the problem – is that municipalities insist upon doing the same thing in the same way. And, as anyone who is familiar with the definition of insanity attributed to Albert Einstein can attest, that doesn’t produce a different result.
Given the resistance of local governments to get creative, Cuomo has changed the rules of the game. Between the tax cap he signed into law in 2011 and this year’s proposal, he has made it all but impossible for counties, cities, towns and villages to conduct business as usual – or, at least, to do so and succeed.
What the municipalities are doing so far is squealing. More than 100 local officials from around the state have signed a letter criticizing Cuomo’s plan to hold the line on property taxes, which he correctly identifies as the burden that does the most to distinguish New York as the nation’s highest-taxed state.
Under his plan, upstate homeowners will receive a rebate check to defray somewhat the cost of their property taxes. In the second year of the plan, local taxpayers will get a property tax break from the state only if their local taxing jurisdictions – including school districts – stay within the limits of the state’s annual property tax cap and submit a plan to share services, consolidate or merge with other nearby localities.
Some local governments are complaining that they won’t get credit under this plan for actions they’ve already taken to meet those standards, and that’s a legitimate issue. But the fact is that most of them have done little or nothing to deal with one of New York’s most destructive anomalies: its excessive number of local governments, special taxing districts and school districts.
There is no good reason for this state to foist that much expensive governmental infrastructure onto the shoulders of its taxpayers. They unnecessarily duplicate services and, in many cases, simply provide a patronage playground for elected officials.
Why does there need to be a Town of Tonawanda and a City of Tonawanda? A Town of Niagara and a City of Niagara Falls? Four school districts within Cheektowaga? Besides the fact that that’s the way we do business around here, there is no sound reason.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy, or even possible, to consolidate, even where it is most needed. One big issue is the difference in labor contracts. A consolidation would typically give employees of the lower-paid entity raises in pay to bring them to the level of the higher-paid one. That eliminates some of the possible cost savings.
But it’s too easy simply for leaders of these taxing bodies to throw up their hands and moan about not enough state aid and too many unfunded mandates.
Municipalities should continue to lobby for help with those costs, but they also have to recognize that Cuomo has thrown taxpayers a lifeline. It is up to local elected and appointed officials to demonstrate that they are doing everything they can to allow their constituents to grab for it.
Anything less is an insult.