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A tax-cap override process is necessary

October 22, 2011
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

Many people are surprised - some shocked - that towns and counties are overriding the 2 percent property tax cap. Don't be.

Calling it a "tax cap" was misleading from the beginning. Although it sounded tough and therefore was politically advantageous, it is not a hard cap (although we have to keep calling it a cap or else no one will know what we're talking about. Any suggestions for an alternate name?)

It's more like Massachusetts' Proposition 2-and-a-half, but less restrictive. Even though New York's percentage cutoff is lower, in Massachusetts a public vote is required on any budget that would hike property taxes more than 2.5 percent over the year before. In New York, all it takes is a public hearing and a supermajority board vote to raise property taxes more than 2 percent a year or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. (It should be whichever is greater; that will become evident when inflation skyrockets and public agencies can't keep up.)

"What's the point of the tax cap then?" Ara Newman wrote on the Enterprise Facebook page when he found out the town of Harrietstown is overriding the cap.

"(I) knew the tax cap was (too) good to be true," Daniel L. Wilson posted.

It's more like people's understanding of the cap was too good to be true.

New York's cap is a gate, not a wall, in the way of runaway property tax hikes. It can be opened. It has to be. That's the only way it will work.

That's especially true for counties, for which most of the budget expenditures are mandated, but not funded, by the state. Not only is the state restricting their property taxes; it also won't let them raise their sales tax rates, which, as we've said before, is unfair.

The Enterprise endorsed New York's 2 percent property tax cap and stands by it, but we would not have endorsed it if it didn't have a safety valve.

As it stands, it's pretty easy for boards to override the cap - maybe too easy. It's easy to imagine that, while people are making a big deal of each override now, in the future they'll sail on through with little notice because people won't feel they have any power to stop them. That wouldn't be much different than what we had before.

Maybe it would be better if, like our neighboring state, we required public votes on budgets over 2 percent. On one hand, elections cost tax money, and saving money is the point. But it would be more democratic and more of a check on boards.



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