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Property tax relief proposal leaves questions unanswered for north country local government officials

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CANTON - Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivered a clear message during his 2014-15 budget presentation: property taxes in New York state are the enemy.

“The tax that is the main burden in this state is not the income tax, it’s the property tax,” Gov. Cuomo said.

But county officials in the north country were divided in their reactions to his plan, which places the responsibility of reducing the taxes squarely on the shoulders of county administrators and local government representatives.

The governor’s plan essentially would freeze property taxes for homeowners in counties that are able to stay within the state’s 2-percent property tax cap. Homeowners in those counties would receive a rebate check for the amount their taxes were raised.

In the second year, school districts and local governments would have to continue to stay within the tax cap and develop a plan for sharing or consolidating services for their homeowners to receive the credit, according to the governor’s office, which has included $39 million in the executive budget to aid in this process.

Those consolidation plans must achieve savings of at least 1 percent of a participating government’s tax levy during the third year of the program, according to the governor’s office. That amount would have to increase to 2 percent in the fourth year and 3 percent in the fifth year.

St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators Chairman Jonathan S. Putney, D-Waddington, supported the governor’s proposal.

“Gov. Cuomo has always been an advocate for property tax relief, and the incentives outlined in his budget proposal are appropriately reflective of that,” Mr. Putney said in an email. “In St. Lawrence County we have a few new efficiency initiatives in an exploratory stage and we will try to achieve the goal of freezing property taxes for our residents, but it all depends on the details.”

Jefferson County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III and Lewis County Board of Legislators Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, were less enthusiastic about the plan, however.

According to Mr. Hagemann, the governor’s proposal leaves many questions unanswered, not the least of which is how consolidation initiatives will be judged.

“Who’s sitting in judgment to tell a local government whether that’s a cost-saving initiative or not?” Mr. Hagemann said.

He and Mr. Tabolt both took issue with what they perceived as the unwillingness of the governor to address the number of state programs over which local governments have no control.

“I appreciate where the governor is coming from in trying to reduce property taxes,” Mr. Tabolt said. “I’d be more grateful if he gave us some more flexibility. There are too many social programs that are off limits.”

Mr. Hagemann cited Medicare expenses as one of the leading consumers of the county’s property tax levy.

New York is unique in that it places the cost of Medicaid programs at the local level, Mr. Hagemann said.

“Medicaid, public assistance, preschool, special education, indigent defense — I’m not saying these are bad programs, but there are huge implications at the local level rather than state. Has the state looked at these to make them more efficient?” Mr. Hagemann said.

In his executive budget, Gov. Cuomo has acknowledged that Medicaid is “one of the biggest costs for counties and New York City,” and the state is covering the cost of growth in Medicare spending, though that policy amounts to little more than “contained growth,” Mr. Hagemann said.

In a statement released shortly after the governor presented his budget, New York State Association of Counties President Mark Alger wrote that county leaders share the governor’s “vision of a re-imagined New York State” but that they often disagree about which level of government should bear the cost.

“...Counties and county taxpayers fund more than $12 billion worth of state initiated (and mandated) programs and services. For several years, those local costs have been on the rise. ... More needs to be done,” Mr. Alger wrote.

Mr. Hagemann said the governor’s budget will be a major topic of discussion when the association meets in early February.

“This puts more on the backs of local governments of New York state; that’s the problem,” Mr. Hagemann said.

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