Seward: Time for mandate relief to accompany tax cap

The following article was written by New York State Senator James Seward, who represents the 51st senate district.

As always, alternative or dissenting viewpoints are welcome. Email your submissions to editor@cortlandvoice.com.

New York’s property tax cap has saved taxpayers a sizable total of more than $15.5 billion since being enacted in 2012.  While the cap hasn’t solved all of our problems, it has been remarkably successful in encouraging spending discipline and keeping a lid on skyrocketing property tax increases.

The property tax cap limits the annual growth of property taxes levied by local governments and school districts to two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. Since 2012, the vast majority of all school districts and municipalities have kept spending increases below the cap, leading to significant property tax savings for residents and businesses.

Growth in property taxes skyrocketed by over 73 percent for New York school districts between 2001 and 2011 and 53 percent in counties.  Just think of the dire straits homeowners and small business owners would be in if that trend continued.

It is also important to note that when the cap was created there was a renewed commitment to increase state support to school districts.  The results are clear – over the last five years support to schools has increased by 26 percent, a total of $4.9 billion.

New York State Sen. James Seward addressing local lawmakers and community stakeholders at the Cortland County Legislature Thursday morning (Photo: Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice)

The bottom line is that the tax levy cap works.  Allowing it to expire would be costly and would almost certainly usher back in the days of double-digit property tax increases.  That’s why I just joined with my senate colleagues in passing a bill (S.1207) that would make the property tax cap permanent.  Next, we need the state assembly and the governor to join in advancing this vital legislation.

I am also sponsoring a bill (S.3969) that would help amend the law slightly to clarify the formula used and ensure that schools would not be faced with a negative tax cap.

One other factor that is intertwined in the discussion is mandate relief.  A portion of what local governments and school districts are forced to spend their budget on is a direct result of requirements forced on them by federal and state governments.  Some of these requirements simply make no sense.

I have consistently worked to eliminate and reduce mandates to help free up local dollars for local priorities.   While there have been some victories on this front in recent years, I am the first to say that the job is not complete.  My senate colleagues and I have introduced major cost savers, but the governor and state assembly have rejected the bulk of these reforms.  It is a challenge that will continue and a fight that I will not abandon.

We can start with a full state takeover of Medicaid.  New York is the only state in the nation that forces county governments to pay a share of the Medicaid costs and it is a major expense.  Several Medicaid and pension reforms I have championed have been enacted in recent years saving local governments hundreds of millions of dollars in higher costs, but there is more that can be done.

Measures to phase in a state takeover of indigent legal defense services and district attorney salary increases are also needed to help free up local dollars for local needs.  Last year, the senate advanced legislation that would address both of these situations.  The assembly joined us in support of the bill regarding indigent legal defense services, but the governor vetoed the legislation that would have enacted this significant cost saving measure.

Local governments are faced with rising costs and increasing budget demands and shouldn’t have to shoulder added expenses, which will ultimately fall on taxpayers, due to unfunded mandates passed down from Washington D.C. or Albany.

The leading complaint I hear from constituents centers on property taxes.  I am also acutely aware of the painstaking measures local elected officials take to balance their budgets and still provide essential services to their constituents.

The tax cap along with bona fide mandate relief measures will answer both concerns and deliver true savings for property owners.