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Long Island gov’ts must innovate to cut property taxes

At a press conference at Brookhaven Town Hall

At a press conference at Brookhaven Town Hall on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine expresses his opposition to proposed utility rate increases by the Long Island Power Authority, or LIPA, and the Public Service Enterprise Group Inc.?s PSEG Long Island subsidiary. He called for state officials to begin a binding review of the proposed increases. Credit: Steve Pfost

Brookhaven Town is in a competition. We hope it wins.

The prize is $20 million in state funds, and it goes to the local government that puts together the best plan to reduce property taxes by consolidating, restructuring or sharing services. Brookhaven is one of six finalists, and we applaud the town and Supervisor Ed Romaine.

Brookhaven is considering such common-sense steps as turning over its two sewer districts and five water districts to Suffolk County, and consolidating its six Fire Island erosion districts into one entity. It also is exploring sharing services like assessing and assessment data, purchasing, information technology, security and public safety with villages, fire districts, library districts and other special districts.

These are good moves, even apart from the dangled financial carrot. The competition was announced last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is making another attempt in his years-long quest to drive down property taxes. It has been a Sisyphean endeavor, but Cuomo is not wrong about the deleterious effect of high property taxes or the need to reduce them.

His new plan, included in his 2017-18 proposed budget, would require county executives to convene local governments and develop a tax-cutting plan of consolidations and shared services that would be presented to voters in November. And he sweetened the pot by matching with state funds any savings produced by those plans.

But Cuomo is already getting pushback, especially from local governments that long have resisted cooperation and consolidation. They say unfunded state mandates are a big cost driver and should be eliminated. But many mandates are things government ought to do, whether required by the state or not, and the state under Cuomo has been picking up Medicaid increases, a huge expense. The effectiveness of Cuomo’s plan also would be limited because school districts, whose tax levies are 60 to 70 percent of most property tax bills, are excluded. Cuomo has gone down that road, too, but the money he dangled to incentivize districts to consolidate got no takers on Long Island.

There are some simple truths here. There are areas where cooperation would be easy and produce savings — like purchasing. So why not talk about it? Success might beget more cooperation and savings down the road. But it’s also true that significant cuts in property taxes won’t happen without cuts in school taxes, and without addressing some really big questions. Is there a better way to deliver services than our current structure of government? Why does our state have both counties and towns? Some states have only townships. Others have only counties that offer all services. A new world of taxation means escaping the orbit of the old.

So let’s take the small steps. That’s better than not starting down the path at all. Chances are we’ll all find out that reducing the size of government does not have to be painful or political. But then let’s tackle the big issues and the real drivers of high taxes. If Long Island’s leaders are genuinely concerned about suffering taxpayers, they need to be genuinely committed to helping them. — The editorial board