ITHACA, N.Y. — New York counties including Tompkins may soon have to find ways to reduce the cost of local government to comply with a proposal by Gov. Andrew Cuomo that counties create efficiency plans. Though meant to relieve the “crushing burden” of property taxes, some say it’s not the right solution.
Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the “Countywide Shared Services Property Tax Savings Plans Initiative” as part of his 2018 budget that would require local governments to find ways to consolidate and cut costs to lower the burden of property taxes.
“By challenging local governments to create a plan to streamline government bureaucracy for voter approval, this … initiative will empower communities and lead to real, recurring property tax savings,” Cuomo said Jan. 10 during his state of the state address.
Possible actions for counties, the proposal states, include sharing services such as joint purchasing, highway equipment, storage facilities and plowing services. Counties can also establish energy and insurance purchasing cooperatives, reduce back office administrative overhead and eliminate duplicative services, the proposal states.
Any plan Tompkins County creates must be approved by local voters in November. If voters do not approve the plan, counties must re-try the following year.
County Administrator Joe Mareane, who will be responsible for creating a plan, said everyone agrees property taxes are too high, but he does not think Cuomo’s proposal will benefit taxpayers and disagrees with the governor’s premise behind the proposal.
“The premise is we are wasteful, we’re inefficient and we duplicate,” Mareane said.
He said Tompkins County has done a lot of consolidating, such as consolidating the county’s 911 Center or creating a county-wide assessment unit. He said the county also has a consolidated SWAT operation and public transit system. Tompkins County is currently exploring police consolidation and has previously explored court consolidation.
“There’s a lot of things we’ve already done maybe too quietly because it seems like Albany doesn’t recognize that there’s a lot of cost-saving things that have already happened here,” Mareane said.
If Tompkins County waits until the budget is approved in April, with this proposal, the county will only have 80 working days to complete a plan. In that timeframe, Mareane will work with Paula Younger, deputy county administrator, to hold public hearings, meet with local officials and develop the plan. The county’s regular budget planning will also be taking place at the same time.
Sharing services, consolidating and creating efficiency plans are not new for counties, according to Mark LaVigne, deputy director of the New York State Association of Counties. NYSAC keeps a “living document” of local governments sharing services. It was most recently updated in January.
Tompkins County is listed as an example several times in the document. One example is the county creating a health insurance consortium with local municipalities, which saves the county about $1 million per year, the document states. Neighboring counties have also begun to join.
LaVigne said there are a lot of questions, including constitutional questions, raised by Cuomo’s proposal. The first question Lavigne said the state needs to answer is “What kind of impact will this proposal have on property tax payers?”
LaVigne added that the return on investment in this proposal is not that large. He said 78 percent of property taxes levied statewide are New York City and school taxes, which leaves 22 percent as the “total universe” of potential savings.
“Even if there was a percent or two in savings, it’s still really not going to have that much impact on your average property tax payer anywhere in the state,” LaVigne said.
Instead, LaVigne said NYSAC has been advocating that to really reduce property taxes, especially at the county level, the state must reduce the cost it forces counties to pay. He said counties pay more than $12 billion per year in state-mandated programs and services.
“If the state wants the counties to reduce our property tax levies that would be the place where we would encourage them to start,” LaVigne said.
Mareane said the notion that with a few consolidations or shared services, there are “gobs of dollars to save,” is not true.
“We’ve said look if you really want to understand why taxes, property taxes in New York State are so high, you have to understand how the state affects local property taxes. And we’ve talked ad nauseam maybe about state mandates that find their way into county budgets. And they’re immense,” Mareane said.
The biggest burden Mareane pointed to was Medicaid, which costs the county $12 million per year and is 24 percent of the tax levy.
“So our suggestion back at the state is – it’s time to stop nibbling around the edges. If you want to talk about real, significant, sustainable property tax relief, then we’ve got to attack the problem where it’s the worst and that is the mandates, the unfunded mandates that counties have to pay. Let’s put that on the ballot,” Mareane said.
Cuomo’s press office did not respond to requests for comment on how much counties are expected to save, or if there are penalties if a county does not create a plan.