Proposed Cap on State’s Tax Payments to Localities Undercuts 122-Year-Old Compact Between State & Adirondack/Catskill Park Towns, Counties and School Districts
As the deadline nears for Gov. David Paterson to make last-minute changes to his 2009-10 budget plan, more than 100 government and civic leaders from the Adirondack and Catskill parks are urging the governor to discard his plan to cap the state’s property tax payments to local towns, counties and school districts that host state Forest Preserve lands.
Governor Paterson is expected to announce his “30-day amendments” to the budget tomorrow (Thurs., Jan. 15). The group urged the governor to remove the “reverse tax cap” plan from his budget proposal.
The Adirondack and Catskill parks are preserves of both public and private lands, where public lands are protected by the NYS Constitution, which bans their lease, logging or development. The remainder of the parks is private land, governed by zoning codes designed to conserve forests and wetlands, preserve wildlife and protect water quality.
The state pays full local property taxes on about 3 million acres of Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve spread across more than 100 rural towns in 16 counties. The Legislature made a commitment to do so in 1886, when it created the Adirondack Forest Preserve. It made a similar commitment in the Catskill Park. The governor’s budget proposes that the Legislature break both commitments.
State tax payments are intended as compensation for the prohibition against commercial use of the Forest Preserve, and in recognition of the services provided by local taxpayers (police, fire, courts, etc.).
Late last week, the Common Ground Alliance of the Adirondacks sent a letter bearing the signature of 90 local government officials and leaders from not-for-profit organizations and local businesses, who said the governor’s tax cap would be a disaster for the local economy. Catskill leaders echoed their concerns, saying they agreed with the letter. The group released that letter to the public today.
The letter points out the following concerns:
The state has a century-old legal obligation, dating back to 1886, to pay full property taxes on its Forest Preserve lands to the communities that host them.
The state just spent a small fortune on Atty. Gen. Andrew Cuomo’s successful defense of the state’s current tax payment system for Forest Preserve lands (Dillenburg v NYS, 2007).
Capping state tax payments would create a double standard for landowners that would become impossible for local officials to manage.
Because the distribution of Forest Preserve lands is uneven from town to town and school district to school district, the cap would have a disproportionate impact, unfairly harming some taxpayers much more than others.
The tax cap is already undermining support for the acquisition of new public lands in the Adirondack and Catskill parks.
Specific, Unfair Impacts
Towns such as Newcomb would take an exceptionally large blow from a new tax cap. Because 84 percent of the rural Essex County town is Forest Preserve, a cap on the state’s share of local taxes would mean annual increases for local taxpayers of 18.75 percent just to keep pace with inflation. If the town board needed to approve a 5 percent increase in spending, the actual increase to local private property owners would be a 31.25 percent jump in taxes, officials explained.
The Common Ground Alliance is a growing organization of more than 100 local officials and leaders. The core group is made up of representatives from local government and various organizations dedicated to environmental protection, sustainable development, landowners’ rights, and community enhancement.
When the Governor first announced the cap on state tax payments in December 2008, both the state Senator and senior Assembly member from the eastern Adirondacks protested the change. Their statements were nearly identical to concerns expressed in the letter.
“This tax cap would be a dangerous precedent,” said Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury. “You can’t have two separate tax rates, one for the state and another for private property owners. The state has an obligation to pay its fair share of taxes. Not doing so would shift the state’s financial responsibility unfairly to local taxpayers, many of whom are struggling to afford to remain in their homes.
“The state appears to be feeling the pinch of high property taxes,” she said. “It would be far more constructive for state government to work cooperatively with local governments and school districts, reduce state mandates and help them reduce property taxes for everyone.”
“When our hardworking taxpayers are struggling to meet their financial obligations, it seems only right that the State would honor the commitment to pay full taxes on the hundreds of thousands of acres they own in the Adirondack Park,” said NYS Assemblywoman Theresa Sayward, R-Willsboro.