Friday, January 22, 2010

Consolidate our governments

From the 26 January 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers


By Bob Confer

(Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series, “4 Ways to Save WNY”)

Ask locals what they dislike the most about Western New York and more often than not the answer isn’t what an outsider might expect. Common national sentiment would have one believe that it’s the snowbound winter months that are most depressing about the Niagara-Buffalo region. Not so. It’s the taxes.

New York’s property tax burden is among the greatest in the United States, the fourth highest actually, at $3,622 per household. That’s a rather significant portion of household income that, before state and federal income taxes, has a median value of $44,064 in Niagara County. To put that into perspective, a family works one whole month out of every year just to pay for their school, county, and city/village/town taxes.

It’s rather disheartening to think that not only do we have less to spend but also that New York is among the very few states where housing represents a bad investment. Think about it: The median home value in Niagara County is $95,800. 10 years of taxes paid is $36,220. Would a Niagara homeowner be able to turn around and sell his house after 10 years at $132,020? It’s impossible and even then he would only break even and that’s not accounting for home improvements.

It’s this extravagant expense (among countless other taxes and fees) that has driven many a resident from our area to places much less expensive in which to maintain a home and support a family.

One would have hoped that the Great Recession would have forced the state government’s hand in bringing about much-needed change to this predicament in an effort to one, save families hit hard by the loss of jobs or retirement income and two, stave off the continued demise of the region. But, the state legislature, in typical short-sighted fashion, has failed to address the mandates (such as Medicaid and educational directives) that make property taxes so exorbitant.

So, what can be done? How can we reverse (or at least temper) this trend?

The answers may exist in a law that goes into effect on March 21. Lost amidst the chaos of the supposed Senate coup of June of last year was the passage of that law, the Reorganization and Empowerment Act. This powerful tool will allow municipal leaders and driven taxpayers to initiate a process of consolidation and dissolution of local governments including towns, villages and special districts. This can be achieved in two ways. In the first method, a town council can put the measure before voters. In the second method, concerned citizens can take up the charge and would need to collect signatures from only 10 percent of the affected voters in order to put it before the general voting population.

According to the commission that helped create the legislation, more than $1 billion in annual savings could be achieved through a variety of consolidation measures. Locally, you could see this wisely put to use in say the combination of the towns of Royalton and Hartland for example, cutting back on services and resources exercised and duplicated in neighboring communities of nearly-identical stature. Similarly, Niagara County’s incredible number of special districts should be on the chopping block. According to a 2007 study by the State Comptroller’s office, County taxpayers pay on average $687 per year in special district taxes. In comparison, that cost in Tioga and Cortland Counties is only $49.

It’s up to the people to move on this - whether it’s the representative small town board or a group of residents - in much the same way they have with Kevin Gaughan’s downsizing efforts that have taken Western New York by storm. When this tool becomes available it will be interesting to see where it is used, who uses it and just how much money is saved. It’s something that might prove significant in making a good number of communities in Western New York more affordable places in which to live.

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