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Letter: Disengage property tax from legal aid

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seen in an undated

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seen in an undated photo, proposed treating LLCs as "traditional corporations" -- capping contributions at $5,000 annually. Credit: Getty Images / Slaven Vlasic

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has a historic opportunity to lead the country in progressive criminal justice reform.

Legal defense services for the poor are mandated to be provided at the county level and are funded primarily through the property tax. When New York State settled a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union for having an unconstitutional legal representation program for the poor, the state improved the public defense system for only a few counties that were parties in the case. And the state funded those improvements.

The State Legislature and governor now have an opportunity to extend this new system statewide. But this must be acted on before the legislative session ends in mid-June. Specifically, the state should pass legislation — Senate bill 6341B and Assembly bill 6202C — that would help Nassau and Suffolk counties. Long Island property owners pay nearly $30 million in taxes to defend some 30,000 defendants in the criminal justice system.

This legislation would phase out property taxes that fund indigent legal defense and provide for a more uniform system of justice in all counties.

Long Island property taxes cannot sustain the needs of this state program. County government officials urge our governor and legislature to make this property tax relief a priority.

Stephen J. Acquario, Albany

Editor’s note: The writer is the executive director of the New York State Association of Counties.