Property taxes are the scourge of Maria Tafuri's life on Long Island. Just like many other residents, Tafuri says soaring property taxes are defining her family's life much more than she ever intended, pushing things in the wrong direction for her.
"My daughter can't afford to live on Long Island," said Tafuri, a married office administrator from Copiague, about her grown daughter. Tafuri said she and her husband pay more than $12,000 a year in property taxes - and she fears that may push her off the Island someday as well.
By a wide margin, property taxes are the most important issue facing Long Islanders, according to a Newsday / News 12 Long Island / Siena Research Institute Poll. Property taxes were cited overall by 45 percent of respondents, more than twice the 21 percent who cited "availability of good jobs" as the second most pressing issue for Long Islanders.
"Property taxes are really an issue here because it keeps the young people from staying on Long Island and it will prevent the older people from staying, too," Tafuri explained.
Property taxes also are a large part of why the 57 percent of those polled said Long Islanders are headed in the "wrong direction" rather than the "right track" in the poll. A similar margin said New York State was headed in the wrong direction as well.
Property taxes are a particularly raw issue in Nassau County, where 53 percent cited them as the biggest issue, compared to 36 percent in Suffolk. Islandwide, Republicans and people 55 years or older complained about property taxes the most.
School costs - the biggest part of property tax bills - were also on the minds of Long Islanders who cited "the quality of public schools" among their top concerns.
"The first thing I would do is eliminate tenure for teachers in public schools to cut costs," said another poll respondent, a 50-year-old Garden City man who is a Republican and who did not want to give his name. Although he was happy that his two children attending local schools got a good education there, he said his family's property tax bill has been overwhelming.
Grappling with rising school taxes is a matter of "significant urgency" for school officials here, said East Islip Superintendent Wendell Chu, who is president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. "We all see it. We're all Long Islanders. We live here too and we pay taxes ourselves."
The association has a new package of proposals for reining in insurance, pension and special education costs that it is hoping legislators will support. "The answer is not going up to Albany with our hats in our hands and saying we need more aid. . . . We have to change the way the system is," Chu said.
Property taxes hit a chord with all respondents, regardless of age, race, gender, religion, location or party affiliation. In addition to identifying the most important issue, the poll underlined the intensity of Long Islanders' general feelings about property taxes, with 86 percent calling the issue "very important" and 11 percent as "somewhat important."
Crime, schools, good jobs and health care also received strong reactions, with traffic congestion and the local environment getting milder reactions.
Asked about solving Long Island's property tax problem, Tafuri said the first place she'd look at is large salaries for school administrators and teachers, which, she said, have fueled the property tax hikes in recent years. "I think schools are overstocked and they are paid an enormous amount," Tafuri said. "There are so many layers of administration and that's where a lot of our taxes go."