Waste Watch: Local property taxes are no longer local

Every year counties send out property tax bills to residents and business owners. There was a time when property taxes was the main source of revenue for counties and local governments to fund local services. According to the New York State Association of Counties, those days are long gone - thanks to unfunded mandates.

In a type of shell game, state mandated programs now account for the lions share of your property tax bill essentially taking the "local" out of local property taxes. NYSAC Executive Director Stephen Acquario told CNY Central's Jim Kenyon, "Beginning in the 1960's, a sustained planned effort by the state of new york to shift its expenditures , its programs and services from the state treasury to the local property tax payer."

The mandated programs over which counties have little control include Medicaid, Welfare, Probation and Public Employee Pensions. NYSAC says county property taxes statewide now fund some $12 billion in state programs.

Some counties are fighting back. Cortland County has included a flier with its tax bills that informs property owners that 68 cents out of every property tax dollars goes to state mandates, leaving just 32 cents on the dollar for cortland county to spend on law enforcement, road maintenance and other local programs. According to Cortland County Administrator Martin Murphy, "two thirds of our tax levy is being sent to Albany to support programs that we have no control over and no say as to how they're implemented."

The situation is more significant in Onondaga County. The fine print on property tax bills reads: "100% applied to state mandated costs."

Acquario says the state needs to "give the local governments, in this case the counties, the ability to implement those programs with some flexibility with some authority and with the ability to control costs."

Governor Andrew Cuomo says he has reduced the size of the state workforce, placed a cap on Medicaid costs to counties, held the state spending increase to under 2 percent and has imposed a 2 percent cap on property tax increases.

Following an appearance in Solvay last week, Cuomo told CNY Central, "There's no doubt the state has picked up and prevented more costs than has ever been done in modern political history. We are still pressing the local governments to do more. Why? Because property taxes are too high...period."

In this year's budget, the governor has earmarked more than $1 billion in rebates to property owners in counties that cap property taxes at 2 percent yet still fund state mandated programs. "People complain to us about the property taxes. So I get it and I get that tightening the belt is very hard but nobody has tightened their belt more than i have." Cuomo added.

Central New York Senator John DeFrancisco chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee. In between budget hearings in Albany last week, Senator DeFrancisco explained to Kenyon that while counties complain about paying for state mandated programs, they also receive another big chunk of revenue in the form of sales tax. "When the counties were given the authority to raise sales taxes, that was to offset the county's share of Medicaid. So I ask county leaders if we take it over completely, are you willing to give up your portion of the sales tax?"

Acquario responded to DeFrancisco's stance, "Our (NYSAC's) answer to that is sales tax was put in place immediately after the mandates were imposed without other form of taxation, Property taxes would be more than triple to make up that difference."

DeFrancisco says he understands the need to reduce the burden of state mandates on local governments. "The problem is the political will to hit these big items...politically it's a lot more difficult to get the votes than it is to come up with a solution."