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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

LI Regional Planning Council tries to take tax problem in hand

Long Island Regional Planning Council Chairman John D.

Long Island Regional Planning Council Chairman John D. Cameron, right, speaks during a council meeting at the Suffolk County Water Authority Education Center in Hauppauge on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

The Long Island Regional Planning Council has taken the unusual step of hiring an expert to recommend ways to ease the hefty local tax burden.

The idea is to have an outsider — PFM Group Consulting LLC of Philadelphia, which for reasons elaborated below really isn’t that much of an outsider at all — scour the nation for best municipal practices and come up with a list of what could make things better.

But the recommendations may only amount to a trial balloon, loosed by experts and an unelected council, neither of which can turn recommendations — even the best of them — into action.

John Cameron, the council’s president, was quick to acknowledge that reality in an interview Friday. Nonetheless, he said, the council intends to push for depth enough in recommendations that will make them difficult to ignore.

“We can’t just throw out trial balloons, we have to quantify, we have to detail, go in depth,” Cameron said. “It can’t just be a wish list of issues that we already know we have.”

Instead, he said, the council is seeking recommendations, buttressed by detail, context and potential outcomes. “If we do this, what would it mean?” he said. “If we do that, what happens?”

Just as important, Cameron said, will be discussion of what happens in Nassau and Suffolk if the region does nothing to address the increasing tax burden.

One handy tool could be an update, which the consultant also is tasked to provide, of a 2010 regional planning council report that detailed the percentage of income Long Island residents paid out in taxes.

Even with a state-mandated tax cap now in place, has that percentage increased or decreased? It would be instructive to know.

As it is, Nassau, as reported in Newsday’s recent series on inequities in property tax assessments, has the highest average taxes in the nation; and Suffolk probably isn’t too far behind.

The council wants the consultant’s work to be ready by May or June, which could allow both counties to consider recommendations as they consider next year’s budgets. But the board’s timing isn’t limited to just that.

Cameron wants discussion of the recommendations to be injected directly into elections this fall, when all but one countywide elected position in Nassau is up for grabs.

PFM began working in Nassau back in the 1990s, when then County Executive Thomas Gulotta, a Republican, brought in the firm as the county grappled with a sinking Wall Street bond rating. The county kept PFM on during the administration of Democrat Thomas Suozzi, during which the firm dissected every department before making recommendations. The firm still works for Nassau, under Republican County Executive Edward Mangano.

PFM’s early recommendations were good ones. But too many ended up going nowhere.

Could this year’s recommendations for the council have more impact?

Cameron hopes so.

“We have to make sure the middle class can survive on Long Island,” he said. “What is happening now, with taxes, is unsustainable and we can’t just let that be, we can’t just do nothing.”

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