Having spent more than a decade as an aide to an upstate New York senator, the late Ron Stafford, I retain some residual habits, one of which is flipping through the Governor’s budget proposals as soon as they’re released, alert, I would hope, to anything that might have an impact on our region, positive or negative.
That’s how I happened to become aware of a proposal in this year’s budget to remove Forest Preserve lands from the real property tax standard and authorize New York State to send Adirondack communities “payments in lieu of taxes.”
I gave it more than a cursory glance because in 1989, when I worked for Senator Stafford, the current governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, proposed something very similar.
Mario Cuomo asked the legislature to cap the amount that New York paid in taxes at levels equal to those levied the previous year. After the cap took effect, the state would pay no more in taxes than it had after the last assessment.
If memory serves, the cap was meant to remain in effect for one or two years only, a temporary expedient to help the state avoid a budget deficit. Senator Stafford, however, believed that the cap, if adopted, would have consequences far more lasting than anyone in the Department of Budget anticipated, or would acknowledge.
Stafford argued that once a parcel ceases to be assessed according to the real property standard, it is impossible to ever again employ that standard to determine the market value of the parcel or, by extension, the fair amount to be paid to the locality in the form of state taxes.
The issue of state payments on Adirondack Forest Preserve lands was hardly a new one for Stafford. In 1971, for instance, he was confronted with legislation that aimed to reduce taxes on Forest Preserve lands by two percent each year.
Stafford had an ally in Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, which argued, “the actions of the state should not threaten local government’s ability to finance necessary local services.” Freezes or reductions in the state’s tax payments would, of course, do precisely that. Not to mention driving everyone else’s taxes upward.
New York State began paying taxes on Forest Preserve lands in 1886, when the legislature adopted a law stating, “all wild or forest lands within the Forest Preserve… shall be assessed and taxed at a like valuation and rate as similar lands…”
As late as 1907, the state was paying taxes on only a portion of its parcels simply because many local assessors omitted state lands from their tax rolls, believing any money the towns stood to receive from the state was hardly worth the bother of compiling and sending the data to Albany.
Within 50 years, however, the amount the state paid in taxes on forest preserve lands had grown to more than $2 million a year.
In response to Mario Cuomo’s 1989 proposal, Stafford called for a moratorium on state land acquisitions within the Adirondack Park. That may have been one reason why Governor Cuomo agreed to drop it during budget negotiations that extended well into April. (Another reason was the State Senate’s willingness to accept some unpopular tax and fee increases, as Stafford indicated when interviewed by the Adirondack Daily Enterprises’s Laura Rappaport.)
Stafford also told the reporter, “the tax cap issue is far from resolved and may come up again.”
That was probably in the back of Stafford’s mind a few years later when negotiating the bill to create the Environmental Protection Fund.
He insisted that local governments be given a veto over state land acquisitions that had yet to be identified by the Department of Environmental Conservation as priorities, and which the state intended to purchase with money from the new fund.
Stafford’s toughness in 1993 has given the communities that would be affected most severely by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal a much better hand than they would have otherwise.
Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board executive director Fred Monroe stated as much during a February 21, interview on WCNY’s Capital Pressroom.
When the DEC asks an Adirondack town supervisors if they support new land acquisitions, as the department did when organizing the purchase of the Finch Pruyn lands, the answer is likely to be “Not so much,” Monroe said.
We must wait and see if this type of leverage is sufficient to persuade Governor Cuomo to drop his proposal, which local government and Adirondack conservation groups believe will shift an inordinately large share of the tax burden from state lands to private lands over the course of time.
Of course, Andrew Cuomo may prove less flexible than his father, in part because the commodity at stake this year is not money (there is no evidence that switching from tax payments to payments in lieu of taxes will affect the state’s budget in any appreciable way) but, rather, local autonomy.
Many local assessors, past and present, appear to believe that the proposal is part of a long-term strategy to replace town assessors with a county-wide office by stripping assessors of their responsibilities and, ultimately, of their offices. If that’s the case, this proposal, even if unsuccessful this year, will no doubt resurface in some other form in years to come.
Photos, from above: Senator Ron Stafford with a former Town of Bolton Supervisor, Frank Leonbruno, in Bolton Landing, July 2001; Senator Ron Stafford with Governor Mario Cuomo and Anti-APA activist Anthony D’Elia at the Essex County Fair during Cuomo’s first term, 1983-87; and Adirondack Park Agency chairman John Collins, Town of Westport Supervisor Don McIntyre, wilderness advocate Paul Schaefer, Senator Ron Stafford, DEC Commissioner Thomas Jorling and former Split Rock landowner Gary Heurich with Governor Mario Cuomo as he signs the Environmental Protection Fund Act into law in a photo taken by Gary Randorf at Split Rock, Essex, NY in September 1993.