Cuomo defends property tax freeze plan

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is joined by Michael Hein, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is joined by Michael Hein, Ulster County executive, left, and Edward Mangano, Nassau County executive, right, to talk about a property tax freeze on Monday, March 17, 2014, at the Capitol in Albany. Photo Credit: Times Union/ Lori Van Buren

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ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Monday sought to bolster his centerpiece plan to cut some of the nation's highest property taxes as he faced opposition by legislative leaders and a fiscal watchdog.

Cuomo wants to provide a state subsidy to taxpayers for up to two years, which would equal a local property tax increase of 2 percent. But the subsidy would only be provided to taxpayers if their local governments and schools keep spending increases under the state's 2 percent cap and agree to share services, consolidate layers of government such as villages or fire protection districts, or make other permanent spending cuts of 1 percent per year for three years.

"The point of the tax freeze is to prompt the cuts, that is the whole point of the tax freeze," Cuomo said. He said the problem is New York's 10,500 inefficient and overlapping local governments. Monday, he was flanked by supportive local government officials, including Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican.

But opposition to Cuomo's proposal continued.

"This so-called tax freeze bill is simply an election-year gimmick," said E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank.

In an interview after Cuomo's news conference, McMahon said Cuomo has exaggerated the number of local governments. The U.S. Census Bureau puts the total at just over 3,500.

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Moreover, most of the local districts don't add costs to taxpayers, McMahon said. Instead, they handle certain services such as ambulance coverage, streetlights and libraries for specific neighborhoods less expensively than charging all of a municipality's taxpayers, some of whom don't benefit from the services, he said.

He also noted voters approved the special districts and when faced with a referendum to consolidate school districts or end special districts -- such as Hempstead Sanitary District No. 2 in 2012 -- they often choose not to.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) said they want to include a property tax freeze in the state budget now being negotiated with Cuomo. But the legislative leaders don't back Cuomo's plan.

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"The concept is the same, we're just taking a different approach," Skelos said. Legislative proposals would provide the tax break, but place far fewer mandates on local governments to trigger it.

When asked by reporters at Cuomo's news conference to name a special district they would like to cut or consolidate, the seven local officials froze momentarily.

Colonie Town Supervisor Paula Mahan acknowledged that some "special districts" are paper-only entities that collect user fees, but don't necessarily add to the cost of government.

"Whether you do it through the property tax or a special district, it's the same thing," the Democrat said.

They agreed, however, that Cuomo's proposal would force a discussion to cut costs.

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Mangano called the Democratic governor's proposal "a great plan. It's one that needs to happen . . . This is the time to work across all aisles."The Legislature Monday started Senate-Assembly conference committees of rank-and-file lawmakers to arrive at compromises on various aspects of the budget. The budget is due April 1.

With Yancey Roy

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