Sometime in June, voters in Brockport will get the chance to weigh in on whether or not their village government ought to be dissolved.
Voters shot down just such a proposal in 2010.
And this time, just like the last time, the heart of the issue is money.
That government costs too much is a familiar refrain to New Yorkers, who are well aware the state is among the highest-taxed in the nation. A Tax Foundation report released last month found that New Yorkers pay about 12.7 percent of their income on state and local taxes alone, the highest rate in the U.S.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo places the blame for the burden largely on the more than 10,500 different taxing jurisdictions scattered throughout the state. Too many layers of duplication, he says, although many of the so-called “taxing jurisdictions” cited in the governor’s numbers aren’t actual governments with employees or offices, they’re simply lighting or sewer districts that pay for those services alone in particular neighborhoods.
In an effort to curb property taxes, the state imposed a cap on increases and Cuomo advocates that local governments merge, share services or dissolve into larger municipal governments. His administration offers financial help for municipalities that want to study the pros and cons of dissolution or consolidation. And, as part of his 2016 budget proposal, he’s floated a plan for communities to compete for the best municipal consolidation plans. The winning plan, which achieves the greatest permanent property tax reduction, will receive $20 million.
“We’ve made tremendous progress over the past five years to make New York more affordable, and this year we are going to keep that momentum going from the ground up,” said Cuomo. “This competition will help local governments find innovative ways to reduce costs and lower taxes for their constituents, which will make it cheaper to live, work and thrive in their communities.”
But experts say the solution to the state’s high taxation isn’t as simple as combining local governments. No matter what, doing the things that government does costs money. There are roads and sewers to build or fix. Courts to administer justice, plows to keep the roads clear in wintertime. Police to patrol the streets. There’s zoning and code enforcement and building inspectors and clerks and record keeping and a whole host of other duties that require tax dollars for salaries, benefits, vehicles, equipment, heat and lighting.
“I think the narrative has gone askew as we talk about what to do about this,” said Tim Hoefer, executive director of the government watchdog Empire Center for Public Policy. “We are one of the states with the highest property taxes in the nation, and the cost drivers are partially at the local level, but they’re also driven by mandates from the states that aren’t paid for.”
Indeed. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that New York pillages its local governments to fund the state budget. The report noted that while other states receive an average of 2 percent of their revenues as transfers from local governments, New York receives a whopping 15 percent — about one-seventh — of its revenues from local governments.
“New York got more of its revenue from local funds than any other state. Among those states that require local governments to pay for part of the health care costs incurred by Medicaid patients within their jurisdictions, New York’s local governments make a particularly large contribution,” according to the report.
“Dissolving all the villages in New York isn’t going to solve the problem,” Hoefer said. “Sometimes it’s worth doing, because there is a reduction, but sometimes shared services is the way to do it and sometimes doing nothing is the way to do it. You need to look at the cost drivers and see if there’s a better way.”
There’s no doubt there are some savings to be seen through mergers and dissolution — for example, when the village of Lyons dissolved this year, former villagers saw their tax rates drop by 62 percent, while town residents saw their rates fall by 7 percent.
Key to the argument that Brockport government is too costly is an Empire Center report that shows residents there have some of the the highest combined property tax rates in the county. The disparity is striking: combined town, village, county and fire district tax in Brockport totals some $26 per $1,000 of assessed value. In comparison, and depending on their fire district, some Henrietta residents pay a combined rate of $12.22 per $1,000. So, the owner of a $100,000 home in Brockport would pay $2,600 versus a $1,222 tax bill for the Henrietta resident.
But the reasons for that disparity are more complex than an assumption that one is frugal and another is spendthrift. In fact, taxes are substantially lower in Henrietta in part because the town does not fund its own police department, as Brockport does, and largely because the overall value of land in Henrietta is exponentially more valuable than it is in Brockport.
In fact, there’s about $25,000 of assessed property value per person in Brockport, compared to $65,000 in assessed value per person in Henrietta. Communities with higher wealth-to-resident ratios typically have lower overall tax rates, while residents of Riga and Perinton also benefit from lucrative landfill host agreements from Waste Management Inc. that help keep property taxes down. Another reason for wide swings between the county’s municipalities — and even within them — is the gulf of difference between fire district tax rates. Those can run from less than $1 per $1,000 in communities served by all-volunteer departments to more than $5.50 per $1,000 for departments fully staffed with career firefighters.
Tim Duffy, a Henrietta resident, said he hears from friends in other communities that their taxes are two, three and even close to four times what he pays for his $186,000 home.
“I have a friend in Brighton who has a $140,000 house that pays almost twice as much tax as I do,” he said. “That’s intense. And honestly, I’m not entirely sure the services he receives compared to the ones I receive are that much better.”
Kent Gardner, chief economist with Center for Governmental Research in Rochester, has conducted numerous dissolution and merger studies for municipal governments across the state and beyond.
“I don’t think the layering is in of itself the problem,” he said. “Clearly there are many cases in which governments would merge and would save some money and where service sharing would save some money.”
That’s evident in the more than $60 million in annual savings identified by Monroe County’s Local Government Tax Freeze Efficiency Plan submitted to the state last year. While state rebate rules required municipalities achieve an overall savings of $5.5 million for each fiscal year from 2017 to 2019, the local government plan here saves an estimated $60 million annually. The state Budget Division estimates that the efficiency plans approved state-wide would save taxpayers $2.4 billion over three years by having local governments and schools move to share more services.
Duffy said he’d like to see a concerted effort by politicians in the entire Northeast to “aggressively get companies to come here and build so they can be taxed,” relieving homeowners of some of the burden.
“The photonics stuff will be good for our region, but the problem I see in the immediate future is the lack of people to work in the field,” he said. “We just don’t have the right talent pool. Assuming the facilities that get built to support the photonics stuff aren’t given ridiculous tax breaks, I think that should help reduce the burden some on tax payers, but that won’t be enough in itself.”
© 2016 Rochester Democrat & Chronicle