Monday, January 23, 2006

Finding Relief From A Taxing Situation

We need a solution to Nassau's unequal burden of levies

By Harvey Levinson

School district spending and property tax rates will continue to rise each year. It is not an encouraging prospect, but it is certainly one we have to face.

As we all revel in the fresh start of a new year, our collective resolution for 2006 should be our commitment to working together to change the fabric of a school and special district property tax system that has created a new class of house-rich and cash-poor homeowners.

In the past year, a handful of elected officials and I have initiated studies exposing the unchecked tax-and-spend mentality that led to scandals in school districts, wasteful duplication of services, and perpetuation of nearly 400 shadow governments imposing about 1,600 widely different tax rates on homeowners and businesses in Nassau.

Although the curriculums, operating costs, revenues and contractual obligations vary among school districts, school taxes still account for about 65 percent of a homeowner's overall property tax bill. Individual school tax rates for residential properties in 2005-06 ranged from $173 in Manhasset to $409 in Levittown for every hundred dollars of assessed value.

Is there any reason why the exact Levitt-style home valued at $281,000 should be paying $3,290 in school property taxes in the Island Trees district and $4,336 in Levittown?

As Draconian as school property taxes are for homes, those paid by businesses are even harsher and vary significantly among districts.

A gas station valued at $500,000 (based on 2004-05 school tax rates) paid $28,790 in the East Meadow district while a similar business paid $40,665 in Valley Stream School District 24.

One possible solution to this disparity would be the creation of a single commercial school property tax rate for all districts, with a percentage of the taxes collected redistributed to all districts under a revenue-sharing formula. Other than sheer happenstance, is there any reason why only two school districts should benefit from the property taxes being paid by the Roosevelt Field Mall?

For sanitation districts operating independently within each town, the disparity of tax rates imposed on homeowners - as opposed to the general town collection district - are significant. If you live in the Special Sanitation District encompassing Elmont, Valley Stream North, West Hempstead and Franklin Square, you are paying 53 percent more for garbage service than most homes east of the Meadowbrook Parkway in the Town of Hempstead.
There is no reason why garbage collection cannot be consolidated and operated by town government under one tax rate for all of its residents.

Similar disparities occur in water districts. When a glass of water costs more than a glass of milk or your neighbor across town is paying a different price for a glass of water, you have to question whether your money is being well spent and if there is not a better way to provide services for these rapidly aging water systems. One possible solution is to place all public water districts under a single water authority, mirroring that of Suffolk County.

The task of finding workable solutions to change the school and special district property tax system requires meticulous planning and coordination from our leading financial experts and state legislators.

Everything must be on the table, including a study of replacing the residential portion of the school property tax with a modest income tax and using the more than $1 billion in STAR and existing school aid to supplement school district budgets.

Many local officials and lawmakers around the state have offered reform measures geared to the problems and financial resources of their regions. But if you apply any of those solutions to Nassau County without addressing our particular system, you create new and more complex problems.

Any study must be conducted at the state level with special consideration given to each region, with the clear understanding that the assessed value of one's property is not an indicator of that person's ability to pay taxes.

I hope all elected officials on Long Island will join me in calling on the governor to appoint immediately a bipartisan committee to submit a course of action to reform the school and special district property tax issues. There is no reason why they cannot be debated in a civil and respectful manner.

Harvey Levinson is Chairman of the Nassau County Board of Assessors.
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The Community Alliance encourages all who read this to contact Governor George Pataki and their respective State Legislators, urging them to take swift and appropriate action to reform our school and special district property tax systems. WE CANNOT LET THIS WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR!

Click HERE to contact Governor George Pataki

Click HERE to contact your New York State Senator

Click HERE to contact your New York State Assemblymember

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