Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Whither The Property Tax?

Escalating property taxes drive search for alternative education funding

A Point of View from the New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA)

By Barbara Bradley

The issue of escalating school property taxes promises to take center stage in statewide political debates in 2006.

Several political figures have indicated their intention to tackle this issue, including a Long Island county executive who may run for governor. Republicans in the State Assembly have organized an Assembly Minority Commission on Alternatives to School Property Taxes.

Delegates to NYSSBA’s Annual Business Meeting in October referred to committee a resolution that would have directed NYSSBA to seek legislation to provide alternative funding methods for public education. A committee comprised of board members will meet with outside experts and make a report at the 2006 business meeting.

This isn’t the first time NYSSBA members have examined this issue. An ad hoc committee was convened in 1992 to study alternative means to fund education.

“Everyone wants to study an alternative to the property tax because it doesn’t account for personal income,” said David A. Little, NYSSBA’s director of governmental relations. “But we are concerned in any shift of taxation that local community residents remain involved in the budget process.”

The issue is particularly hot on Long Island, where more than a third of school budgets failed on the first ballot this year. Right after his November re-election, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi announced he would launch a campaign with school boards and county officials to help reduce school property taxes in Nassau County.

Suozzi, a Democrat and a possible candidate for governor, according to published reports, said that residents in his county have identified school property taxes as a key issue. “We have to start building a consensus that this is the number one problem we face on Long Island and we have to find a solution,” he said.

Long Island property values have risen so dramatically in the past 20 years that many homeowners couldn’t afford to buy their own homes now, according to a 2004 report by the Nassau County comptroller. This increase in property value, combined with a countywide reassessment, has driven up local property taxes and driven down Long Island’s share of state aid to education. State aid is based on income and property wealth.

“For the first time in my 30 years as a school administrator, I hear repeated stories of increasing numbers of parents voting against their own kids’ school budgets,” Valley Stream Superintendent Marc F. Bernstein wrote in Newsday.

Suozzi is slated to meet with Nassau County school board presidents and vice presidents on Dec. 7. According to a letter sent by Suozzi, the discussion will include ways to get Long Island districts their fair share of state aid and to help districts reduce their costs.

Meanwhile, fears of an organized “property tax revolt” in Erie County went unrealized. Of the 29 Erie County school district budgets up for vote in May, only three were defeated on the first ballot.

In November the Erie County Legislature agreed to a 15 percent property tax hike, coupled with a sales tax increase to 8.75 percent, the second highest in the state. Oneida County has the highest sales tax in the state at 9.5 percent, New York City is 8.375 percent, while in Nassau and Suffolk counties the rate is 8.625 percent.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators have created the Assembly Minority Commission on Alternatives to School Property Taxes. Members including Chris Ortloff of Plattsburgh have been traveling the state soliciting alternative ideas to fund education. Among the ideas suggested thus far have been:

- Reducing reliance on property taxes but not totally phasing out property taxes.
- Implementing a “flat rate” income tax and/or sales tax to support public education.
- Capping school property tax increases.
- Reducing the number of state property tax exemptions.
- Ortloff has also proposed legislation that would limit residential real property tax assessments for primary residences to the present inflation rate or 3 percent, whichever is lower, and not to exceed 10 percent over five years.

Other legislators who have proposed legislation include:

- Assemblyman David Hooker (R-Schoharie), who has called for an Education Finance Reform Task Force to study how to transition education funding from real property tax to a combination of income and sales taxes.
- Sen. John Bonacic (R-Orange), who would allow voters to choose to abolish the school property tax on primary residences, shift the local share of education costs to an income-based system, and create county school boards that would disseminate the proceeds to school districts within the county.

“The property tax has provided a stable base for funding education,” wrote Little in NYSSBA’s legislative memo on the Bonacic bill. “While incomes may fluctuate within a school district over time, real property remains relatively consistent in the appreciation of its value.”

With Gov. George Pataki not seeking a third term, several Republican gubernatorial hopefuls have emerged. William Weld has proposed an “Empire State Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights,” according to published reports.

Weld, a former Massachusetts governor, would limit state taxes “under a formula using the previous year’s level and factoring in inflation and annual population growth,” according to the Associated Press. Half of any surplus would go to taxpayers; half would go to a “rainy day fund.” Weld has also called for a constitutional amendment to cap local property tax levies to 2.5 percent of a community’s total property value, according to the Associated Press.

Other states have used such caps. Since 1992, Colorado has had legislation limiting the state’s spending growth rate to the rate of inflation plus annual property growth. However, voters lifted the cap in November to direct excess tax revenue to education, health care and transportation projects, according to Education Week.

California’s Proposition 13, which limits the real estate tax on a piece of property to 1 percent of its purchase price until the property is resold, is the oldest such cap in the nation. It stemmed from a California Supreme Court ruling in the 1970s that ruled the state’s property tax-based finance system for schools was unconstitutional.

Fast forward to 2005, where just last month the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state’s finance system for education – in essence, a statewide property tax – was unconstitutional and directed the state legislature to find an alternative solution.

However the issue is ultimately resolved in New York, “the pressure would be taken off local property taxpayers if the state would pay its fair share,” Little said.

The writer is Deputy Director of Communications and Research for the New York State School Boards Association. This article first appeared in the NYSSBA's On Board Online on December 5, 2005, and is republished here with permission.
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In Related News:

League of Women Voters Launches Study on Education Funding

It was in October of 2004 that Nassau County Assessor Harvey Levinson first suggested that we begin the debate, in earnest, on the issue of school property taxes. That debate, which, of necessity, must take place primarily in Albany -- with the full participation of the Governor and the Legislature -- has only now begun locally, while whithering on the legislative vine at the State Capitol.

A Commission has been formed by the Suffolk County Legislature to seek reasonable alternatives to school funding, an initiative that enjoys bi-partisan as well as bi-county support. [Click HERE to read Joye Brown's, Property-Tax-Relief Bandwagon Gets a Push.]

In Nassau, Trustees from 40 of the County's 56 school districts have banded together hoping to rouse Albany's patron saints of perpetual dysfunction, and County Executive Tom Suozzi, in the midst of a campaign that he hopes will take him from the County Seat to State Street, has made a pledge to fix "crushing" property taxes.

So, what is our role, as citizens and residents, in all of this? As homeowners and taxpayers, we hold the greatest stake in the outcome. With every State Senator's and Assemblymember's seat on the line this November, we have the final up or down vote. We are empowered to bring an end to the tyranny of the school property tax!

It for for us to let our legislators know -- starting today -- that we are holding them accountable. It is for us -- right now -- to light the fires under our elected representatives in Albany, compelling them to do right by the people they serve, even if that means taking that tax bull by the horns and breaking the property tax grip that threatens to destroy the fragile economic's of Long Island's china shop.

Call, write, e-mail and/or visit the local offices of your State Senator and Assemblymember. Let them know you're watching -- and let them know that failure to act responsibly, and before the current session is adjourned, on school funding and the school property tax crisis is not an option.

Yes, let the debate begin. More than this, at long last, let the debate translate into appropriate action, lest both the school property tax issue, and every last dollar in our wallets, whither, and then, descend like a fallen leaf into the black hole of oblivion.

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