There’s no question Alfred State College casts a long shadow.

A major employer, it draws thousands of students from all over New York state and serves as an economic engine for businesses in the 4,000-resident village’s downtown district.

But the college’s tax-exempt status is putting a serious strain on the Southern Tier community’s ability to fund some basic governmental services: fire and police protection, code enforcement and more.

Mayor Justin Grigg — an assistant dean at his community’s other college, the private Alfred University — calls his village’s taxes “silly high.” At nearly $17 per $1,000 of assessed value, the 2015 tax rate was the highest in the western portion of the state, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy. That works out to about $1,700 for the owner of a $100,000 home.

The story’s much the same in other municipalities that serve as home to the State University of New York’s 24 four-year residential colleges. According to state data obtained by the Democrat and Chronicle through a Freedom of Information request, there are 318 parcels in New York classified as both state-owned and educational in purpose. The bulk of them, covering more than 9,000 acres, are held by or house SUNY campuses.

The total value of the properties? Nearly $10 billion. And none of it is taxable. If it were, it would generate $316,200,000 in property taxes, according to the Empire Center’s median effective tax rate in New York.

Local government officials say it’s just another massive unfunded mandate pushing state costs down to the local property taxpayer, driving tax rates higher as communities scramble to keep paying for adequate public safety services for full-time residents as well as the quarter-million students at SUNY’s residential campuses.

“This (mandate) has so much to do with our high tax rates,” said Margay Blackman, mayor of the village of Brockport in Monroe County, home to the College at Brockport. “If the college were paying into our tax levy, our rate of $11.87 (per $1,000 assessed value) would go down to $4.30.”

Here are some findings from the data:

  • The most valuable lands, assessed at $1.4 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, are in Albany and Amherst. Those are holdings of the University at Albany, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and the University at Buffalo.
  • St. Lawrence County, home to SUNY Potsdam, SUNY Canton and SUNY-ESF Ranger school, has more than 3,200 acres exempt from taxation.
  • There are tax-exempt SUNY properties in 23 of the state’s 62 counties
  • The loss of tax revenue is felt most acutely in some of the smallest communities: villages like Alfred, where the value of exempted SUNY land is three times greater than taxable property; or Brockport, where SUNY land is valued at twice the taxable portion of the village; and Morrisville, where SUNY tax-exempt property is four times more valuable than taxable land.

Blackman, along with numerous other officials from SUNY host communities, is working with the New York Conference of Mayors to throw support behind a bill introduced by state Sen. James Seward, R-Oneonta, and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Cortland, that would see the state reimburse SUNY host communities for a portion of their expenses for public-safety services.

© 2016 Gannett

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.

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