Friday, May 17, 2019

Property taxes: Paying your unfair share

A debate that has appeared in the American political scene for what seems to be an eternity is the premise that everyone should “pay their fair share”. So much attention has been trained on this matter at the national level that most people have almost totally ignored the concept at the local level where it should carry even greater weight.

You see, there’s nothing fair about property taxes.  

In comparing properties of equal size, why should a childless couple pay as much as a family of four, when the family of four consumes far more in public services, especially public schooling?

How is it just that municipalities and schools in Allegany County and the Adirondacks reap revenues from what are basically absentee landowners living elsewhere (camp owners) who come to town just a few weekends and weeks a year and acquire almost no benefit from the taxes they’ve paid? Why should those non-resident property owners be excluded from having a vote in how their hard-earned dollars are being used in the places where they are paying them?

In rural locales, why should farmers carry the highest portion of the revenue burden just because they happen to own vast tracks of land? It’s not as if they are receiving a proportionate amount of services.

Why should property owners pay so much for Medicaid (in most New York counties it’s 52 to 64 percent of the county tax) when it should be the obligation of the population as a whole to fund this forced benevolence?

Why should senior citizens on fixed incomes who have been paying into the system their whole adult lives continue to pay high taxes for things they won’t use anymore, but once did and once paid for accordingly through taxation at that time?

Why should someone who loves his home and wants to make it better with a swimming pool, patio or an addition have to suffer the consequences at reassessment and end up paying more in taxes than someone who left his land idle?

Beyond those glaring displays of wrong, consider the very act of property taxation itself: Your bank account is a form of property – would you like the government collecting a tax on its value each and every year? 

You wouldn’t stand for that because it’s “yours” not “theirs”, so why do we allow it with our home and land?

That begs the question: Is it really even “yours”?

You are led to believe that you own your home – and you even possess legal documents that show as much.

You really don’t; ownership is only theoretical.

It’s more accurately stated that you are renting the property from your local governments and school districts at a premium because if you didn’t pay your taxes it wouldn’t take long for that governing body to take that home from you --- even if the mortgage was fully paid-for! How is that fair?

This travesty carries special meaning in New York State where property taxes are 70% above the national average.

Across America, people think of their property taxes in terms of hundreds of dollars. Here, we think of them in thousands of dollars.

In Niagara County a home assessed at $100,000 has a total property tax bill around $3,000, meaning that local homeowners pay over $1,200 more than their peers in other states with equally-assessed properties. Someone whose home is valued at $200,000 pays about $2,400 more than their peers elsewhere.

The extreme view would see property taxes abolished. We know that will never happen.

But, a myriad of changes could be accomplished to mitigate the unfairness of property taxes in the Empire State or, at least, decrease their size.  

Just a few of those ideas: Replace the state’s Medicaid program with an HMO-driven voucher system; add another 1 to 1.5 percent to the state sales tax to use a fairer consumption-driven tax to decrease property owners’ contributions to Medicaid; utilize clawbacks on businesses that break their promises to IDAs; end all corporate welfare that uses 100% tax-free abatements (they have to pay something); introduce assessment caps; adjust assessments to true market value (looking back, how in the world did assessments go up during the Great Recession?); and have a state commission provide oversight of proposed bills that would impose and/or increase unfunded mandates upon counties, towns, villages and schools.

Those are all common sense measures that could cut back on some of the unfairness and high costs that are inherent to our property taxes. But, instead of pursuing them, it seems like the state Legislature and Governor prefer to maintain an air of unfairness by adding more unfunded mandates and more enrollees to Medicaid without relief to residents.

It’s no wonder that so many young minds and retirees have left.

They want someplace fairer to work and live…and, despite what Governor Cuomo says, it has nothing to do with fairer weather.


From the 13 May 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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