Keep eye on savings

It will be a relief for many taxpayers to see a reduction in their property tax bills.

However, along with mandate relief, local municipalities should not lose sight of the fact the status quo is not acceptable. Consolidation of departments within the county – and between counties – will have to be considered, no matter what shape property-tax relief takes.

Earlier this month, the Fulton County Board of Supervisors went on record supporting what it says is a “better” property tax reduction plan, as an alternative to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tax-freeze initiative.

Cuomo included about $1 billion in the 2014-15 executive budget proposal for a two-year freeze on property taxes in school districts and localities that stay within the 2 percent tax cap.

However, the proposal to freeze property taxes is subject to two conditions. In year one, the state will only provide tax rebates to homeowners who live in a jurisdiction that stays within the 2 percent property tax cap. In year two, the state will only provide tax rebates to homeowners who live in a locality that stays within the cap and also agrees to implement a shared services or administrative consolidation plan.

Instead of that proposal – and those conditions – the board passed a resolution calling upon Cuomo and members of the state Senate and Assembly to adopt legislation directing the $1 billion in funding for tax relief to be allocated to lower property taxpayers’ Medicaid burden by 44 percent.

In the alternative plan – outlined by the state Association of Counties – Fulton County residents would see a 23 percent reduction in their property taxes. The plan would result in a reduction of more than $250 per year for the average Fulton County homeowner with a $100,000 home.

While the proposal outlined by NYSAC sounds nice, let’s be realistic: It has little chance of making it through the Legislature. The state has had years to do something about mandate relief, which could promote a substantial savings for property taxpayers. When Fulton County adopted its 2014 budget, officials noted about 78 percent of the county’s tax levy, set to be $27.3 million, is spent meeting the county’s obligations to nine state mandates.

However, it is a little far-fetched to expect the state to pick up a chunk of Medicaid costs it has successfully shifted to the counties. Many critics have noted the state’s finances are not as rosy as Cuomo’s proposal has made them out to be. For state politicians, a gimmicky tax-freeze will be a safer play than real tax relief.

As frustrating as that is, the county can still continue looking at matters of consolidation. For example, the county’s “SMART Waters” project final report will attempt to determine if it’s feasible to consolidate all water and sewer services in the county.

It’s a matter worth looking into. A fair deal for all the municipalities involved could lead to easier extension of water and sewer services in new areas to new businesses, boosting economic development and lowering property taxes.

However, given the various services local municipalities provide – police, fire, etc. – there are always areas they can consider consolidating to save money.

These options may not be as attractive as having the state pay for its mandates, but, if recent history is any indication, it’s far more feasible.

Local taxpayers need savings wherever they can get them. The county must remember it does not have to rely on the state to supply it with everything – even savings.