Warning: lower tax hikes ahead

by E.J. McMahon |  | NY Torch

dinapoliThe starting point for computing next year’s local property tax cap in most of New York State will be less than 1 percent—and so state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is warning local governments “brace for … [lower] growth in property tax revenues.”

The tax cap, initiated by Governor Andrew Cuomo, allows tax levies outside New York City to increase by a maximum of 2 percent or the rate of inflation in the prior year, whichever is lower. The cap is also adjusted to allow for local tax base growth and limited other special factors.

For counties, cities, towns and villages with fiscal years starting Jan. 1, the period for estimating tax cap inflation ended in June, during which the consumer price index rose just 0.73 percent—the lowest amount since the cap was first enacted in 2011.

From DiNapoli’s news release:

“Municipalities may have to operate differently under these new limits. Even tougher budget choices may be required on staffing levels, delivery of services, fund balance reductions, and deferral of capital and infrastructure projects. And if inflation trends continue, it is possible that some local governments with fiscal years beginning later in 2016, including school districts, could be faced with zero growth in property tax revenue.”

DiNapoli’s tone clearly implies that a lower tax cap is problematic. But most property owners will no doubt see it another way. DiNapoli might just as well have warned them to “brace for lower property tax increases”—which, in a state saddled with some of the highest tax burdens in the nation, can only be good news for millions of homeowners and businesses.

Neither the comptroller’s news release nor his office’s accompanying report on the tax cap make mention of the role played by state mandates in driving up local expenses and thwarting efforts to, as the comptroller urges, “operate differently.” The Taylor Law’s collective bargaining rules, in particular, handcuff local efforts to save money, as the New York State Conference of Mayors has pointed out—but DiNapoli, a close political ally of public employee unions, has stayed far away from the mandate issue.

More (unintended) positivity from the comptroller’s release:

DiNapoli estimates that next year more than 1,800 calendar-year local governments will have roughly $88.3 million less in tax levy growth compared to what they had in 2015 when the factor was 1.56 percent and $135.1 million less than they would have had when the factor was at 2 percent as in 2012 and 2013.

The Comptroller also projected that the potential impact of levy restrictions for school districts (which have fiscal years beginning July 1) could range from a loss of $182.7 million, assuming a factor of 0.73 percent, to a loss of $332.6 million, assuming a factor of zero. These ranges are in comparison to the 2015-16 tax levy cap of 1.62 percent.

To put it another way, county and municipal property taxes will still increase next year, but the initially capped amount comes to $88 million less than what was allowed under the 2015 cap. And if current trends continue, the starting point for school tax increases next year could be an inflation rate of zero, as some school officials also recently “warned.”

Except, of course, that the inflation rate is just a starting point. All it takes to override the tax cap, for any reason, is a vote of a 60 percent supermajority of the entity’s governing board. In towns across the state, a supermajority requires the same three votes as a simple majority. In the vast majority of counties, cities and villages, governing board supermajorities are controlled by members of one political party, who presumably won’t find it too hard to agree to raise taxes higher if there’s a real need.

On the school level, the supermajority must come from the voters themselves–which is why school districts have been working harder to sell their proposals to the electorate in the past four years.



- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.