Adirondack state reps speak out about state land PILOT

State Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, questions state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos at a joint budget hearing Tuesday at the Capitol in Albany. (Photo provided by Assemblyman Dan Stec)

In a joint session where members of the state Senate and Assembly scrutinize the governor’s budget proposals, an Adirondack assemblyman asked the Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner about a plan to change the way the state pays local property taxes on its land.

“Local governments and environmental groups are essentially all against this,” Assemblyman Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, told DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos Tuesday in the Capitol in Albany. The proposal was made by another state agency, the Division of Budget, but the DEC manages the state’s “forever wild” Forest Preserve, which makes up nearly half of the Adirondack Park’s 6 million acres and is a big part of the tax base for towns, counties and school districts.

“I’ve been assured that the proposal itself will not change the amount of money that’s going from the state into local government,” Seggos replied. “Certainly I’ve seen the concerns raised directly to me and in the papers, and I know that the budget director has indicated certainly [for] this program a willingness to ensure that it doesn’t have unintended consequences, and DEC will be at the table for those discussions.”

Currently in the Adirondacks, town assessors appraise state property within their borders, as per the New York Real Property Tax Law, which says, “State lands subject to taxation shall be valued as if privately owned.” The new proposal would save money on staff time by eliminating annual assessments.

“It’s important to spend less staff time and spend more time actually implementing programs,” Seggos said in his reply to Stec.

The new PILOTs would match current taxes and increase them annually at the rate of each local government’s tax cap, the rate of inflation or 2 percent, whichever is less. State officials say local governments’ revenue would stay the same or might even go up if they keep their tax levies below the tax cap.

“This proposal is a classic win-win,” Division of the Budget spokesman Morris Peters wrote in an email. “Local cities, towns and villages with state-owned land receive certainty that the State will pay a growing property tax bill each year. Homeowners and businesses in these communities benefit as the state takes on a larger share of the property tax burden every time local officials keep the tax levy within the cap. And the state captures an administrative efficiency, helping us keep agency spending flat through Governor Cuomo’s first two terms.”

Even at the maximum 2 percent, the PILOT increase falls short of the state’s own projected property tax increases. A table on page 116 of the 2019 Executive Budget Financial Plan shows that from 2019 to 2020 the projected payment would increase 2.3 percent. In 2021 and 2022, the state expects increases of 2.2 percent.

“We have serious concerns that this proposal could place financial burdens on the backs of taxpayers,” Stec said in a press release. “This PILOT proposal could easily result in a loss of revenue from state-owned lands and a shift of the tax burden to the remaining taxpayers. I will continue to fight this proposal in future budget negotiations. North Country residents already have high property taxes; we do not need to be placing higher costs on them.”

State Sen. Betty Little, another Queensbury Republican who represents much of the Adirondacks, was also at the hearing and agrees with Stec.

“The new state budget, when adopted, will include some things I like and some things I don’t like, but it must not contain this proposal which everyone I talk with really dislikes,” Little said in an emailed statement. “I am hopeful we will be successful in keeping it out of the final agreement, which is very important to our local governments and environmental groups who are unified in opposition.”

Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay, also opposes the plan.

“I’m deeply concerned that shifting to PILOTs will threaten revenue that municipalities and counties within the Adirondacks have come to depend on for vital support,” Jones said. “This change puts critical funds at risk, and down the line local taxpayers, who are already overburdened, will have to pick up the tab. I am working tirelessly to ensure that this language is not included in the final 2018-2019 New York State budget.”

The Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages has said it will respond to the PILOTs by using towns’ veto power to block any new state land purchases in the Adirondack Park. Three environmental groups — the Adirondack Mountain Club, Adirondack Council and Protect the Adirondacks — have also issued statements against the PILOTs.