Municipal tax cap will be less than 1 percent

| Times Union

For the second year in a row, property tax levy growth for local municipalities will be capped at less than 1 percent, reflecting the low inflation rate, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said Monday.

While New York’s 2011 tax cap law frequently is associated with a 2 percent cap on tax levies, the limit is actually 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower.

Municipalities can override the cap if 60 percent of their elected officials such as town board members or county legislators vote to do so.

The tax levy growth for 2017 will be capped at 0.68 percent, which is down a bit from the 0.73 percent level for 2016.

“In what is becoming the norm, New York’s local governments must cope with extremely limited growth for property taxes to stay within the tax cap,” DiNapoli said in a prepared statement about the cap.

“Low inflation has positive effects for consumers, but it also reflects an uncertain economic environment. Local officials have faced growing fixed costs and limited budget options for years, but 2017 will necessitate even tougher financial choices.”

Representatives of local government agreed that it’s difficult to keep spending so low, and that sluggish sales tax revenues are putting extra pressure on them.

“County operations are funded through a combination of sales and property tax revenues,” Stephen Acquario, executive director of the New York State Association of Counties said in a prepared response.

He noted that 37 counties collected less sales tax revenue in the second quarter of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015.

In the past five years, Acquario noted, counties have sold assets and depleted reserves to meet the state’s property tax cap requirements.

Others have noted that costs such as pension obligations as well as health insurance for employees have risen steadily over time, squeezing out money for other services.

Still, watchdogs noted that government spending should reflect the cost of doing business in the rest of the economy. When inflation is low, that means municipal spending should be low as well.

“This is nothing but good news for taxpayers. The cap is based on the sensible notion that the price of government shouldn’t rise any faster than prices in general,” E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center said in an email.

“If a tighter cap only puts more pressure on localities to do more with less, that can only be a good thing. What’s still missing is mandate relief, especially Taylor Law reforms that would give towns, cities and counties more flexibility to restructure their personnel costs.”

Observers have long pointed out that aspects of the Taylor Law, which keeps employee longevity raises in place even with an expired contract, make it hard for municipalities to control employee costs.

As is the case with schools, personnel costs make up the largest part of municipal budgets.

If county, town or city leaders feel the need, they can vote to override the cap. A town board of five members, for example, could override a cap with three votes. But many local officials may feel constrained for fear of a voter backlash over tax increases.

In 2014, 26 percent of local governments overrode the cap, which was then 1.67 percent. Last year was similar with about 23 percent overriding it.

Local governments have been under the cap since 2012, following Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s introduction of the law and its passage in 2011.

Municipalities can vote to allow an override, but they can essentially reverse that by not enacting the increase if they are able to.

That’s what happened last year in the Albany County town of Rensselaerville, where officials were able to avoid breaking the cap, despite an initial vote that would have allowed it.

“It’s not easy,” said Supervisor Valerie Lounsbury.

She said they’ve held off on some purchases and have turned to volunteers to perform some functions that used to be municipal jobs.

Residents have helped maintain the community’s senior van and they take care of gardens around city hall.

They also keep an eye on things like heating oil costs, which fortunately for taxpayers, have been low lately.

McMahon added that the cost of asphalt, for road repairs, has stayed low as well, which should help communities stay under the cap.

New York state has also helped counties by picking up increases in Medicaid costs, which are a major county expense.