Friday, January 25, 2008

The Suozzi Commission: Property Tax Panelists In Place

Now Its Time To Cap, Consolidate, And Cut Spending To Keep Property Taxes In Check

Governor Spitzer has announced the members of what will certainly come to be known as the Suozzi Commission, the official State body created to find ways to reduce New York's outrageously high property taxes.

A few of those named are familiar -- like Basil Paterson, the former Secretary of State, and Shirley Strum Kenny, the President of SUNY's university center at Stony Brook.

There's also an investment banker, Michael Solomon of Merrill Lynch; a former Onoandaga County Exec, Nicholas Pirro (the Commission will have to first set out to find Onandaga County :-); the vice chancellor of NY's Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch (too bad we can't test the property tax to death); and attorney Paul Tokasz, a former majority leader of the NYS Assembly.

Fine for a study group, assuming the solution is academic. We question whether there is much in the way of innovative, out of the box new-age thinkers among the chosen, though. Other than perhaps having to pay property taxes, and lending their names to the Commission, why these folks as opposed to noteworthy headliners such as Catherine Zeta Jones or Denzel Washington.

We are pleased, for the most part, by the Governor's appointment to the Commission's Advisory Board: Robert Ward, deputy director for SUNY's Rockefeller Institute of Government; Elizabeth Lynam, deputy research director at the Citizens Budget Commission; Karen Scharff, executive director of Citizen Action of New York; and Lisa Donner, co-director of the Center for Working Families.

Would that the average Joe or two from the Empire State -- in the realm of Mr. & Mrs. Property Taxpayer -- had made the cut. It would have made the Commission's case more compelling, and the urgency of finding practical, truly cost-saving solutions, even more of an imperative.

Oh well. John Q. Public will have to hold his peace until the perfunctory public hearings, we suppose.

Mindful of political considerations, we also would have tapped Senator Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre), the State Senate's Deputy Majority Leader, who has some decent ideas of his own -- particularly on school spending -- and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) to join the panel.

Surely, they'd be loathe to subvert the work of the Commission from the inside, and they'd be pressed to come up with workable (and passable) remedial measures worthy of implementation by the Legislature when the Commission presents its preliminary recommendations (by May 15) and final recommendations (by December 1).

Also, strong and knowledgeable voices concerning affairs of the taxpayers' wallets, say, Kent Gardner of the Center for Government Research, and Edmund J. McMahon, Director of The Empire Center for New York State Policy, would have been credible and welcome additions to the Advisory Board.

Anyway, we all know that this is Tom Suozzi's ball to carry (so let no one steal the spotlight) -- or to drop -- and that the Commission that will come to bear his name will have his indelible mark on it.

Suozzi knows exactly where he wants to go on the highway to property tax relief. Lord knows, he's been talking about the issue long enough, and squawking about Albany's utter failure to do anything about it.

Now New Yorkers must insist not only that the Suozzi Commission's work move forward with all deliberate speed, unimpeded by political roadblocks (the usual GOP suspects are already laying out the roadblocks), and unencumbered by a State Legislature more concerned about securing its meal ticket than assuring that our proprty tax burden -- now virtually the highest in the nation -- is driven down and kept there.

On both sides of the aisle, elected officials realize that the number one issue for New Yorkers -- and the one they will have to address and come to terms with BEFORE the November election -- is property taxes.

It is not only in our best interest, but in their own, to work with the Suozzi Commission, and to act swiftly and forthrightly upon the Commission's ultimate findings.

Armed with subpoena power, the Suozzi Commission can take testimony under oath, subject to the penalties of perjury, of those with pertinent knowledge or information.

Perhaps among the first subpoenae issued, should be those to leaders of the NYS Legislature (surely, they will waive immunity), who can testify, under oath, as to their efforts, and pledge, before all New Yorkers, to that which is the Commission's primary objective -- to lower the sky-high property tax by all reasonable means. [We "don't need a commission to tell people that their property taxes are strangling them," as the Senate's Deputy Majority Leader, Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) so aptly opined. But just maybe we do need a Commission to tell the State Legislature what to do about those property taxes, inclusive of adopting some of Senator Skelos' own ideas, such as making all newly hired teachers State employees.]

Godspeed to the Suozzi Commission. May your endeavors and committment to the financial security of all New York taxpayers do in resolving the property tax crisis, what the Mollen Commission did in the 1990s for the integrity of the New York City Police Department.

Our tax dollars are in your hands!
- - -

Governor Eliot Spitzer today announced the signing of an Executive Order creating the New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief. This bipartisan commission, which will have Moreland Act powers, will examine the root causes of high property taxes, identify ways to make the State’s property tax system fairer, and develop a fair and effective school property tax cap to hold the line on property tax growth.

“Ever-growing local property taxes impose a tremendous burden on New York taxpayers, force seniors out of their homes, drive our young people out of our state, and discourage the formation and expansion of businesses,” said Governor Spitzer. “Our efforts to address this crisis – including unprecedented increases in State education aid and more than $5 billion in STAR school tax relief – have not slowed the growth in local property taxes. We need to explore new approaches, including reducing unfunded mandates and placing a cap on the growth of school property taxes. The creation of this Commission is the first step in this process.”

The Commission will be chaired by Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi who has been outspoken on the issue of property tax relief. The Commission’s members are Nicholas J. Pirro, former Onondaga County Executive; Paul A. Tokasz, former member of the State Assembly; Basil A. Paterson, former Secretary of State and former State Senator; Merryl H. Tisch, member, State Board of Regents; Shirley Strum Kenny, President, SUNY Stony Brook; and Michael Solomon, Director, Merrill Lynch & Co.

Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi said: “New Yorkers pay the highest property taxes in the nation, a burden our residents and businesses can no longer bear. We need to take a comprehensive look at the root causes and recommend ways to reduce them. I commend Governor Spitzer for making this issue a top priority, and I appreciate the confidence he has placed in me by asking me to chair the Commission. I look forward to the challenge and to working with all the distinguished Commission members on an issue I have spent much of my career in public service tackling.”

Under the Executive Order, the Commission will study, examine, investigate, review and make recommendations in the following areas:

- the root causes of New York’s high property tax burden, including the expenditures of local governments and school districts, unfunded mandates imposed by the State, and other factors driving the growth of local property tax levies;

- the effectiveness of the various state mechanisms to provide property tax relief to different classes of taxpayers;

- the effectiveness of property tax caps as a mechanism to control growth in school district tax levies, the experience of other states in implementing such caps, and the potential impact of such caps on educational achievement;

- the most effective approach to imposing a limit on school property tax growth in New York State without adversely impacting the ability of school districts to provide a quality education to all schoolchildren;

- the impact of increased state financial support and state taxpayer relief and rebate programs on local school district budgets and tax levies; and

- the extent of public involvement in the development and approval of school and other local government budgets.

The Commission is to make preliminary recommendations for a statutory school property tax cap by May 15, 2008, and report its final recommendations by December 1, 2008.

John Reid, Deputy Director of State Operations and Executive Director of the Commission on Higher Education, will serve as Executive Director of the Commission.

The announcement today in the Red Room at the State Capitol was one of three events today where the Governor stressed the importance of the Commission to address the property tax relief concerns for all New Yorkers.

Commission Members:
Thomas R. Suozzi
is in his second term as Nassau County Executive. He is known as a government reformer and he has also worked as an attorney, certified public accountant, and former Mayor of Glen Cove for eight years. Mr. Suozzi continues to work to bring strong management, fiscal discipline, compassion, and vision to Nassau County. Under Mr. Suozzi, Nassau has its lowest crime rate in 30 years and is the safest place in the nation with over a million people. The parks system is making a comeback, and for the first time in the county’s history voters approved $150 million in bonds to preserve open space.

Dr. Shirley Strum Kenny is the President of Stony Brook University. After a distinguished career as a literary scholar, teacher, and academic administrator, she came to Stony Brook as its fourth President in 1994. Since then, she has worked to strengthen the core academic and research operations of the University, fostered close links with business and industry, and established new working relationships with the Long Island community. Concerned about the state of undergraduate education at major research universities, Dr. Kenny headed a national initiative to address the issue. She launched and chaired the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University with funding from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Dr. Kenny holds bachelor's degrees in English and Journalism from the University of Texas, an M.A. from the University of Minnesota, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and honorary doctorates from the University of Rochester, and Chonnam National, Dongguk, and Ajou Universities in Korea.

Basil A. Paterson is a partner in the law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein, P.C. Mr. Paterson has served as New York’s Secretary of State and as New York City Deputy Mayor for Labor Relations and Personnel. He has also served as a New York State Senator, and as a Commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Mr. Paterson chaired the New York City Mayor’s Judiciary Committee for four years; chaired the Governor’s Judicial Screening Panel for the Second Department for eight years, and served on the Commission on Judicial Nomination for twelve years. He is presently the Chairperson of the KeySpan Foundation Board of Directors. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from St. John’s College and a Juris Doctor degree from St. John’s Law School.

Nicholas J. Pirro served as Onondaga County Executive for 20 years, retiring at the end of 2007. He has been credited for fiscally conservative policies aimed at reducing taxes and government spending, while improving services. Mr. Pirro began his career in public service in 1965 when he was appointed to the Onondaga County Board of Supervisors (now the Onondaga County Legislature). He was elected Onondaga County Executive in 1987 and was instrumental in many landmark initiatives during his career, including the establishment of the Onondaga Community College Campus, reestablishing the City-County Drug Abuse Commission, implementing a 911 Emergency Communications System, and initiating a county-wide recycling program. He also helped create the Onondaga County Public Library System, the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park, the Center for Forensic Sciences, and the County’s Veteran’s Cemetery. Mr. Pirro was elected by his peers to serve as President of the New York State Association of Counties for 2000-01.

Michael Solomon is a municipal finance professional having provided investment banking and advisory services to state and local governments for over 20 years. He is employed in the Public Finance department at Merril Lynch & Co. headquartered in lower Manhattan. In his work for the state of Michigan, he helped to create the nation's first revolving fund program for school construction, which was recognized by the Bond Buyer as the Midwest Deal of the Year for 2007. In addition, Solomon's experience with education includes providing short term funding for the operating budgets on over 400 school districts in Michigan and working with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in developing its new educational funding entity, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which fundamentally transformed how the commonwealth funds its financial support to school districts. Mr. Solomon graduated from SUNY Albany with a degree in Financial Management Systems. He is a native of Oceanside, Long Island and now resides in Bedford, NY.

Merryl H. Tisch has been a member of the New York State Board of Regents since April 1996, and has served as Vice Chancellor of the Board since April 2007. From 1977-1984 she taught first grade at the Ramaz School and Bnail Jeshurun School in New York City. She serves as the New York City Mayor’s appointee to the Commission on the Status of Women and the Mayor’s representative to the Tenement Museum of the City of New York. Regent Tisch also serves UJA-Federation of New York as a member of the Board of Trustees, member of the Executive Committee, member of the Planning and Allocation Committee, and Chair of the Government Relations Committee. She is President of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Poverty. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Barnard College, a Master of Arts degree in Education from New York University and an Ed.D. from Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

Paul A. Tokasz is a partner in the government affairs and media relations firm of Patricia Lynch Associates and the former Majority Leader of the New York State Assembly. Mr. Tokasz has a long and distinguished career of more than three decades in public service. Prior to being appointed Majority Leader, Mr. Tokasz served as Chairman of the Assembly Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development. Serving in that role from 1997, he proved to be a strong advocate for arts and tourism. He received his Bachelors of Arts Degree in History from Hobart College and furthered his education at Buffalo State College where he obtained his Master's Degree in Education.

Special Advisors to the Commission:
Lisa Donner
is the founding Co-Director of the Center for Working Families. Previously, she worked as an organizer for the Service Employees International Union for four years, mostly dedicated to the Justice for Janitors campaign in Washington, DC. Ms. Donner subsequently worked for ACORN for 11 years, first as a Legislative Representative and then in turn as Legislative Director, National Campaign Director, Director of ACORN’s Financial Justice Center, and as ACORN’s National Director of Public Policy. Ms. Donner graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in Social Studies.

Elizabeth Lynam is the Deputy Research Director at the Citizens Budget Commission, a non-partisan, nonprofit civic organization devoted to influencing constructive change in the finances and services of New York State and New York City governments. Ms. Lynam covers the New York State and City budgets and other policy issues important to State and local government. She works closely with the media, and has designed and authored studies on local tax relief, reforming New York State’s fiscal practices, Medicaid, special education policy, collective bargaining, and alternatives to incarceration for drug offenders. Prior to the Citizens Budget Commission, Ms. Lynam was the Deputy Director of the Office of Special Education Initiatives at the New York City Department of Education, where she helped manage the transformation of the way special education services are delivered in New York City public schools. She received her BS from Cornell University and an M.S. in Urban Policy and Management from the New School University.

Karen Scharff has served as the Executive Director of Citizen Action of New York since 1984. Citizen Action is a statewide grassroots organization that empowers New Yorkers to fight for social, economic and racial justice, with a focus on policy change at the state level. She was one of the founders of the Alliance for Quality Education, and she co-chairs AQE’s statewide board. Ms. Scharff chairs the Steering Committee of the Coalition for After-School Funding, which was founded in 2000 to advocate for increased state and federal resources for after school programs. She co-chairs the Policy Committee of the New York State After School Network, and serves on NYSAN’s Steering Committee. Ms. Scharff graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. from Harvard University in 1979.

Robert B. Ward is Deputy Director/Director of Fiscal Studies for the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. He is author of New York State Government: Second Edition, published by the Rockefeller Institute Press; and of The $163 Lightbulb: How Albany’s Mandates Drive Up Your Local Taxes, published by the Public Policy Institute of New York State. Ward has previously served as Director of Research for the Public Policy Institute of New York State/the Business Council of New York State; and as Assistant to the Chairman of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. He is a founding member of Parents For Excellence, a parents group in the Bethlehem Central School District. A graduate of Syracuse University, Mr.Ward lives in Delmar.


  1. seniors should pay onlY 2%

  2. Any tax cap without appropriate action on the drivers of increased spending controlled by the NYS legistlature won't solve the problem. Suozzi's report is a political tool to support his candidacy for governor. It's a bad and incomplete idea.