Hudson Valley leaders are blasting New York City Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota for suggesting that "there needs to be an open discussion" of bringing back a commuter tax on those who work in the city but live elsewhere.
"A lot of people who live outside the City of New York are protected every day by the Police Department and the Fire Department and all of our emergency services," the former MTA chairman told Newsday in a recent interview. "There needs to be a way to have that discussion."
Worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually, the tax was allowed to expire in the late 1990s. Bringing it back would require legislative approval, and Hudson Valley politicians say they are prepared to fight any effort to do so.
"The commuter tax was killed more than a decade ago and should stay dead," said Ned McCormack, a spokesman for Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. "It was unfair, because it was a one-way tax, because it only affected commuters to New York City. And if it ever came back again it would be even more unfair."
The commuter tax, imposed in 1966 and increased in 1971, was 0.45 percent of taxable income for taxpayers in Long Island and the city's northern suburbs. The tax generated about $360 million a year for the city before it was abolished.
McCormack said the number of so-called reverse commuters from New York City to Westhester has grown to 78,000. He pointed out that the county isn't seeking to charge commuters from the Big Apple for use of the roads and municipal services in Westchester.
Other Westchester leaders compared the commuter tax to the MTA payroll tax -- which imposes a 34 cent tariff on every $100 that employers pay toward salaries -- categorizing both taxes as attempts to unfairly bill commuters for city services they seldom, if ever, use.
Assemb. Tom Abinanti (D-Tarrytown), who represents several Westchester County commuter towns, said he sees a need for discussion of a fair approach to transportation funding, in place of a commuter tax.
"I don't think we need to bring back a commuter tax, but I do think we need to have an open discussion about how the MTA spends its money, and if we come to the conclusion that they need to have the fares supplemented, then we've got to find a fairer approach that deals with the whole region," he said. "The cost should be spread across the entire system."
Officials on the other side the Hudson River echoed those sentiments.
"We don't get the services that other parts of the state get based on the amount of money that we already pay to the MTA, so we don't want any additional tax burden to be put on our residents," said Ron Levine, a spokesman for Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef. "We don't think that bringing back a commuter tax is the right thing to do."
At City Hall in Manhattan, the commuter tax has strong support. Ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for whom Lhota was a top aide, drew fire in 2007 from then-rival GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he advocated keeping the tax and even raising it. More recently, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Democratic mayoral hopeful, said she supports the tax's return. The same goes for City Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, two other Democratic candidates in the mayoral race. Democratic former Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. called for its restoration in 2002, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg did so in 2003.
On Friday, commuters had mixed opinions about bringing back the commuter tax.
Susan Doeef, of Scarsdale -- she was boarding a Metro-North train in Grand Central Terminal -- rolled her eyes at the thought of restoring the tax.
"Right now, it's so expensive to live in the New York City region," she said. "Adding another tax would just be brutal."
Steve Cheng, of Brooklyn, was headed for a job interview in White Plains, also passing through Grand Central. He explained he is hoping to become one of the nearly 80,000 New York City residents to commute from the city to Westchester County for work.
"I think if it's reasonable, it would be OK," he said. "But if they keep raising it, people will be resentful."
With Thomas Zambito