Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Read Tom's Lips: Higher Property Taxes

County Exec Seeks 3.9% Hike

Nassau County ranks third in the nation in property tax burden, right behind number one Westchester County and number two Hunterdon County (NJ).

As the financial markets crumble and economic woes beset nearly every one of us on Long Island, Nassau County is trying harder to catch the pack and take the lead.

County Executive, Tom Suozzi, recently called for a 3.9% increase in the property tax – the first increase in 5 years. The price tag per Nassau County household? Roughly, $65.

At first blush, the thought of even a small increase, coming from the lips of the guy who set out to cut property taxes – the thorn in the side of county homeowners – would seem unconscionable.

The Chair of the NYS Commission on Property Tax Relief proposing a property tax increase? What is he thinking? What were we?

Of course, Mr. Suozzi is within the 4% cap (and we have not abandoned our position, mind you, that a tax cap is not a tax cut, by any means) his Commission proposed for school property taxes, so fair is fair, we suppose. Still, can Nassau County homeowners afford any increase in their already hefty tax burden?

The real question is, with declining revenues from other sources – particularly the dwindling sales tax receipts – can Nassau County afford not to raise property taxes.

Fact is, core services must be maintained, as must at least the aura of suburbia, as we have come to know it, lest Nassau County slip into the great abyss of economic depression ala NYC in the depths of the fiscal crisis of the 70s, where neglect of everything from infrastructure to community policing was the order of the day.

True, the argument can be made – and we have made it here, many times – that there is evidence of neglect in the way Nassau County does business in its regular course, evidence the decline in park upkeep and road maintenance, but make no mistake, without maintaining the core services by means of a modest tax increase in these tenuous economic times, a meltdown of the very attributes that make Nassau County so attractive to its inhabitants, from the provision of essential services to maintaining the bond rating that keeps Nassau afloat in the marketplace, are at risk, raising the potential for a financial quandary that would make the darkest days of the Gulotta administration look like fireworks over the East River on the Forth of July.

Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of our neighbor to the west, the City of New York, and a fiscal conservative under whose stewardship the city has flourished, has recently bantered about the prospect of a 7% property tax increase for city homeowners, warning that such increases may be necessary to close enormous deficits.

“I said we will look at all the different possibilities, but I think the solution is a combination of expense reduction, which nobody is going to be happy about, and revenue enhancements, which nobody is going to be happy about,” Bloomberg told The New York Times. “This is not going to be a feel-good time.”

Similarly, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, in proposing a number of significant budget cuts to complement, if not offset, the hike in property taxes, had this to say:

"Despite the worst national economic times in over a decade we kept the tax increase below 4%. We did this while maintaining our commitment to fiscal integrity by keeping our headcount low, by negotiating tough, but fair contracts with our public employee unions, by reducing our debt service and implementing smart government initiatives as we have each year of my administration."

Without doubt, when the proposed 2009 budget comes before the politically divided and essentially inept Nassau County Legislature, there will be the usual wrangling, finger-pointing, and posturing for which this gang has become infamous.

So, too, will this property tax increase become campaign fodder when the County Exec seat is up for grabs next year, despite the obvious shortfalls and economic realities beyond the control of even the most fiscally prudent CEO.

No, there is no room, and this is no time, for the partisan bickering that has, in the past, mired our county in a dysfunctional stupor. There is no Democratic or Republican way to either pick up garbage (except in the town’s Special Districts, where all yokels are political), or to set the county’s fiscal house in order, and no painless way to keep the county solvent while continuing to give moment to the great suburban dream.

There will be cuts, consolidations, give-backs, and, yes, more property taxes to pay. Why, they may even have to unplug those high-def flat screen TVs installed in the offices of our County Legislators at the newly restored courthouse. Ouch.

As Mike Bloomberg opined, “This is not going to be a feel-good time.”

No, it is not.

Still, with stringent belt-tightening, fiscally responsible governing, and, yes, a property tax hike that amounts to, more or less, a tank of gas per household, hard times will, in due course, lead to better times for all of us.
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