Everyone at the Wednesday, September 1 meeting in the Catskill Middle School auditorium agreed the current system, which requires local property owners to fund between 60-70 percent of education costs, is flawed, because school budget increases are outpacing property value appreciation, and in the 21st century, property is no longer the main measure of wealth. Grassroots groups such as the Stone Ridge-based NYState Property Tax Reform Coalition and Taxnightmare.org in Gardiner have sprung up over the last 10 years to fight for lower school taxes, claiming the burden is driving folks out of the New York to more tax-friendly states. New York and neighboring New Jersey are ranked at the top of the list by the U.S. Census Bureau for having the highest property taxes.
Jumping into the tax and education fray is local assemblyman Peter Lopez, R-Schoharie, whose district includes Saugerties. The Catskill meeting was the closest one to Saugerties, and several Saugertiesians made the trip. Lopez told the more than 40 people in attendance that while most politicians in Albany recognize that the school tax burden is too great on residents, “there is very little consensus building.”
Calling himself a “grassroots consensus builder,” Lopez, prior to the start of the meeting, said while he has a number of ideas on how to solve the problem, he wants to take the ideas of those he serves and build upon those.
To that end, he is creating a number of advisory committees, which he hopes will be staffed by a representative cross section of local residents; from farmers, to small business people, to stay at home moms and dads, to those who have to commute out of the area for work.
“I’m looking for a balanced world view,” Lopez said, “across the spectrum of residents.”
“It’s my belief,” Lopez said, “that once leaders in Albany see that there is one or two grassroots ideas, they will come to a consensus and approve legislation that will reduce school taxes.”
MORE LOTTERY FUNDS FOR EDUCATION
One idea, to consider increasing the share of the state lottery revenue going toward education, put forward by Lopez in an interview with the Saugerties Times several months ago had merit, according to those at last week’s Catskill meeting.
He said New York State raises about $8 billion a year in revenue from the sale of lottery tickets of which approximately 60 percent is paid out in prizes and $2 billion or about 30 percent goes towards education.
Residents thought Lopez’ lottery idea bore merit and encouraged him to move ahead with it, and he plans to do so. Not everyone is thrilled. “I received a telephone call after that interview from someone on the lottery commission saying that if my idea moved forward fewer people would play the lottery,” Lopez said with a laugh.
CONSOLIDATE SCHOOL DISTRICTS
Carl Rucoff of Hunter suggested the state should consolidate school districts. “Maryland has reduced the number of school districts and has reduced costs,” Rucoff said.
He said that there are about five million people living in Maryland and there are 24 school districts, while in upstate New York there are about 10 million people and 688 school districts.
“If we could focus on reducing the number of school districts, it would cut costs,” Rucoff said.
State officials have looked at consolidating school districts, Lopez said. In 2008, the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief chaired by Tom Suozzi issued a report to governor David Paterson, and one of the recommendations was to consolidate school districts that have fewer than 1,000 pupils.
Lopez said there was one problem with the Suozzi Commission recommendation in that most of the districts with fewer than 1,000 students are in the more rural areas of the state, “and how to you make sure that students [aren’t] riding the school bus more than two hours to get to and from school.”
One state leader has suggested forming a commission to evaluate the situation and force districts to consolidate where appropriate, similar to the Berger Commission on Healthcare, which recently forced Kingston and Benedictine hospitals to consolidate. Lopez said the Berger Commission idea, “was a bit extreme,” and that a better, less extreme measure should be found.
Several other ideas have been kicked around in Albany, Lopez said, including contracting with BOCES to provide administrative services for a number of school districts, which would cut school administrative costs, which would cut the cost of operations and hence cut school taxes.
School districts could also share administrators, Lopez said.
Susan Kusminsky of Cairo suggested New York should follow the example of other states such as Pennsylvania, which adds a few cents onto every item purchased (gum, soda, etc.) as a school sales tax, which keeps tax rates down.
Lopez said a bill calling for just a school sales tax was before the Senate and Assembly, but was never approved. The Senate and Assembly are at odds on how to solve the problem, Lopez explained.
Paterson wants a four percent cap placed on taxes, much like the once recently enacted in New Jersey, Lopez said. The Senate wants a “circuit breaker” bill passed, which would limit the amount of tax a property owner would pay. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have some type of circuit breaker in place, but only six of those states and D.C. allow participation for any property regardless of age. The others are age restricted, according to the Retirement Living Information Center.
Ruchoff said New York should “benchmark” what other states are successfully doing and implement similar measures here.
Catskill town supervisor Peter Markou challenged Lopez and his fellow legislators to “Do something bold,” Markou said. “Do something visionary.”
To join one of the committees’ being created by Lopez, contact his Albany office at 518-455-5363 or via e-mail at email@example.com.