September 07, 2007


Seward pushes plan to eliminate school taxes over 5-year period


Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Senator Seward speaks at a press conference on the front yard of Wesley and April Pettee, with their children Rebecca and Owen, to announce a property tax relief plan.

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Citing consistently high property tax levies in New York, state Sen. James Seward visited West Main Street Thursday and touted a proposal that would allow school districts to eliminate local property taxes.
The New York Stop Taxing Our Property  program, which passed the state Senate on June 13, would give school boards the authority to eliminate residential property taxes over a five-year period, with revenue replaced by additional state funding.
It would also impose an immediate freeze on property tax assessments for seniors, create a commission on property tax reform and enact measures to require the state to fund the mandates on school districts and municipalities.
“It hurts young families in terms of homeownership and it hurts senior citizens who want to remain in their home as long as possible,” Seward said midmorning Thursday, standing in front of the home of Wes and April Pettee. “It seems to me that we need a bold, aggressive, innovative approach.”
Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno sponsored senate bill 6119; it passed the Senate and was forwarded to the Assembly in June.
Boards of education would be allowed to hold a public vote to determine whether school property taxes would be phased out over five years at a 20 percent rate annually, or continue using the existing, locally levied school revenue system.
The increase in state aid — which would factor in a yearly cost of living increase — would cost the state about $1.8 billion each year, for a total of $9 billion at the end of the five years, Seward said.
He stressed that school districts would be fully reimbursed for the lost revenue.
“What we’re looking to do here is shift the burden, particularly that of public education, to the statewide revenue sources,” which would be more “fair,” Seward (R-Milford) said.
Statewide revenue sources include income taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes and corporate taxes.
Duncan Davie, a spokesman for Seward, said the tax rate of these sources wouldn’t be altered.
“The senator is not advocating a tax shift where we increase income and increase sales tax,” Davie said this morning. “This is revenue neutral. The senator’s proposal would use the amount of revenue that the state gains each year to help fund the removal of the school property tax.”
Davie said the state’s revenue increases by virtue of increased economic activity by about $3.2 billion annually. Some of this goes towards the STAR tax rebate and other recent increases in school aid.
“There is certainly going to be enough to cover the elimination of the school property tax,” Davie said. “There are a variety of revenues that can be brought to bear on this, in addition to the normal increase in revenues.”
The Cortland City School District budget for 2007-08 includes a $13.35 million tax levy for a $38.45 million budget, and school board president Tom Brown said this morning that he supports any attempt to ease the burden of property taxes. But he does have questions about the details.
“I am concerned about how much local control would be taken away from voters to have a state funded budget,” Brown said. “They make the decision as to whether they want to fund our programs or not.”
The schools would still have complete control over their budgetary process, Davie said, pointing out that “there’s nothing in there that changes local government.”
The Dryden School Board president Anderson Young said that although recent changes to state aid formulas have helped, he’s excited for any new proposal that could help the district.
The district has a $13.4 million tax levy with its $30.16 million 2007-08 budget.
“I’m very anxious to see the proposal, because the school aid funding reform is critical; particularly for a school district like Dryden, because we’re disadvantaged within the current funding formula,” Young said this morning. “I am reluctant to comment on the details because I haven’t seen them, but I’m grateful that he (Seward) is moving on the issue.”
Seward and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) both pointed out that this year has seen a record 10 percent increase in school aid.
The approximately $121 billion 2007-08 state budget funnels $19.6 billion in state aid to school districts, an increase of $1.8 billion.
Statewide, school districts raised $23.1 billion in local property taces in 2005, according to a state Comptroller’s report. In total districts received $42 billion in revenue, the difference coming from $15.7 billion in state aid and $3.3 billion in federal aid. Those figures included commercial and residential propties; only residential properties would be affected by NY-Stop, Davies said.
“Phasing it in at the $1.8 billion level, we could accommodate the hit,” Seward said. “Somehow, I think if it went to the voters, it would pass.”
But because the program would also freeze property tax assessments at current levels for those older than age 65 with incomes under $100,000 a year, the program would effectively cap some of the revenue coming into the schools — municipalities would receive additional state aid to close that gap, which would take into account a yearly cost of living increase.
Although Lifton said she endorses the creation of a committee to pursue possibilities for property tax reform, she thinks the other components of the proposal might be “putting the cart before the horse.”
“I think it’s taking on too much too quickly,” Lifton said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “If we’re going to talk about capping the local property tax, we need to ask where the money is going to come from to fund our schools.”
Instead, she supports Assembly bill 9239, which proposes just the creation of an exploratory commission similar to the Senate’s.
“Like everyone else, I’m very unhappy with the property tax situation,” Lifton said.
She said she would like to see a more progressive income tax structure in the state, because recent attempts at property tax relief have had a disproportionate benefit to the wealthy.
“If they (the members of the Assembly ) don’t like the details of this plan, than they could come up with one of their own and present it to us,” Seward said.



Judge: County Moose Lodge contract valid

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — A state Supreme Court judge ruled Thursday that the county breached a valid contract when it voted in January to void its agreement to purchase the Moose Lodge on south Main Street.
Judge Philip Rumsey found that the county — when legislators initially voted in favor of purchasing the Moose Lodge for $250,000 in December — entered into a binding contract, and that the subsequent cancellation of that contract in January was not legal without the Moose Lodge’s consent.
The ruling does not address how much the county will owe the Moose Lodge for the breach of contract.
However, based on another purchase offer received by the Moose Lodge after the county backed out of the deal for $200,000, attorney Russ Ruthig said that $50,000 plus interest and court expenses would likely be amenable to his client.
From the county’s standpoint, Rumsey’s decision is harbinger for two other cases related to the south Main Street land deal, in which nine parcels were involved at a total cost of $894,000.
A case against the county, in which the owners of Robbins Vending ask for the county to proceed with the agreed-upon $300,000 purchase of two parcels at 159 Main St., is awaiting argument in Rumsey’s court.
A third potential suit looms from property owner Annamaria Maniaci who filed a notice of claim against the county in June, but has not yet filed suit.
Maniaci wound up selling her home for $9,000 more than the county had agreed to pay, however she claims the county’s retreat from the original deal cost her $13,000 in various expenditures, and is asking the county to pay the $4,000 difference.
Legislature Chairman Marilyn Brown (D-8th Ward) said that Rumsey’s ruling “opens the door” for similar rulings on the other legal actions against the county.
“If we breached a contract, the others have to be breached too, I would think,” Brown said.
Brown, while she said she was concerned about the rising legal costs to the county, said she agreed with Rumsey’s decision.
In a press release issued this morning, Brown questioned County Attorney Ric Van Donsel’s “performance and legal advice” to the Legislature.
Brown said, through the press release, that she had approached Van Donsel prior to the January meeting at which the purchase was revoked, and told him that, once the sellers had been notified, she felt the Legislature could not reconsider.
“I went to his office and told him that, but he was basically saying the Legislature can do what they want to do,” Brown said. “Now we’re stuck in this legal battle, and he wants to appeal the judge’s decision, but I want to know at what point this is going to end? How much money do we have to spend fighting this when the judges’ ruling is perfectly clear?”


Plan would direct flooding solutions

Subcommittee calls for study to evaluate where projects are needed and their impacts

Staff Reporter

With myriad flooding problems in the county in several areas, the county subcommittee on flooding agreed Thursday that the county needs a comprehensive plan to address those issues one by one.
The committee, which is made up of legislators, city aldermen, county planning officials and other community members, agreed that it is difficult at this point to prioritize and focus on one area in the county because so many areas are affected.
It decided to pursue developing an all-inclusive study of the county’s numerous flooding “hot spots,” which would allow community leaders to effectively organize and prioritize any mitigations they undertake.
If the committee could solicit the support of flood-ridden municipalities in the county, Bernie Thoma of Thoma Development noted that the study could potentially be funded by state money earmarked for inter-municipal cooperation.
“I think what we need is some kind of comprehensive approach that helps evaluate where we’re going to need to do projects, what sort of impact they would have,” said Legislator and committee Chairman Carol Tytler (D-3rd Ward).
The comprehensive plan would set criteria for determining which issues should take priority, similar to long-term plans used by highway departments in addressing highway repairs.
However, Amanda Barber, director of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District, noted flooding issues can change rapidly.
“This plan is not a typical plan, you can’t predict like other infrastructure,” Barber said. “You’re going to need to be constantly reassessing, reprioritizing … you could have one hot spot one year, but then another year it’s farther down stream.”
The committee agreed the study should be flexible, and should include specific criteria for prioritizing problems and changing the document for future community leaders.
Thoma said the first step in developing such a plan would be determining a scope of the plan, which Barber and County Planning Director Dan Dineen said they would work on.
Then, Thoma said he would solicit cost estimates from consulting firms, after which the committee would need to forge partnerships with municipalities in order to apply for state funding.