Legislature chairman says report on high property taxes doesn’t tell whole story

Posted 23 June 2016 at 12:00 am

David Callard

(Editor’s Note: Orleans County Legislature Chairman David Callard delivered these remarks during the June 22, 2016, Legislature meeting.)

Every year it seems that the Empire Center for Public Policy puts out a list of the highest tax rates in the state – and every year the citizens of Orleans County are treated to a rehash of news articles highlighting certain parts of the study and scolding local officials, whether they be village, town, county, or school, for their role in achieving that dubious ranking.

Most recently there was an article on village taxes within the county reporting them among the worst in the state. What is lacking in this news article, however, was the whole story.

Villages are constantly being ranked regardless of size. Given that premise – one benchmark that is always used is the Top 20 Property Tax Bills on Median-Value Homes. That list has never included an Orleans County village, but that is never mentioned. Or more significantly, included in the report, but is never mentioned in articles, is that the county taxes paid per capita in Orleans County are the SECOND
LOWEST of the 57 counties in New York State. Again – the second lowest taxes paid per person in New York State.

People tend to be negative without acknowledging all of the facts. This is something the state government does all the time when deriding the counties. The town of Ridgeway is a solid 816th out of 932 for towns in taxes per capita. The Medina School district is also very solid at 625th out of 702 for local spending per pupil among school districts. Even the Village of Medina’s 238th out of 557 in taxes per capita doesn’t seem so earth shattering considering the high level of services.

Let’s face it; casting blame without an acknowledgement of all the facts is something we get plenty of from people in Albany. We don’t need to do it here as well. It would be responsible to cite those other stats as they give a fuller picture.

Orleans County pays over $16,000,000 to the state in unfunded mandates- our entire tax levy. But articles and the critics constantly disregard that fact, and seldom if ever criticize the Governor and the New York State Legislature for the property taxes at the county level alone and even more at the school level.

According to every academic study ever undertaken on the subject, the fundamental differences between New York State and the other states in the country boil down to two basic things: 1) the way New York State funds Medicaid and 2) the way New York State funds education. Sure we have lots of other over-regulation and taxation issues beyond those two. But, those are the really big ones.

New York is the only state in the country to require a significant local share of Medicaid be paid by the counties and the average state funds two-thirds of public education through income taxes while New York State funds about one-third. It’s really that simple.

Indeed the village governments of Orleans County face tremendous challenges, not the least of which is the high property tax rates. The dissolution efforts in the Village of Medina, though rejected by Medina residents, if nothing else, forced a conversation, a necessary conversation.

In some areas of our local governments, we are doing business in the 21st century on 20th century terms. In some cases, we are holding on to old ways of doing business that could be changed for the betterment of the community at large. This isn’t to say that people are wrong for feeling that they want to hold on to their village, or their town, or their school district.

What it does tell us, is that it’s time for us to challenge ourselves, people on both sides of the argument, east and west, north and south. Challenge ourselves to take a hard look at what we are doing and ask ourselves “If given a clean slate, would we build our service delivery models the way they are now, or completely different?”

Inevitably, we are going to find areas where we can build a better mousetrap together. We have the ability to fix what ails us to some degree. We can work with our friends and neighbors and make changes that will raise all boats. We can realign service models, adjust cost centers, and change the landscape profoundly.

If we are going to seek honesty about mandates and education funding from the state, we also need to be honest with ourselves. This is a conversation that should take place in earnest and should seek solutions that remove Orleans County and its villages, towns and school districts from such a list forever.

Apologies to those that believe the answer is to complain that the county should give away more sales tax. The answer to this challenge is not to have the taxpayers of the county surrender cash to the village governments, to throw at their existing service models, buying them time until the inflation and expense curve catches up with them again as some suggest.

The answer is change. Change that we can all buy into that alters the equation. It requires compromise. It requires faith. And, it requires casting off old notions of provincialism.

Truth be told about sales tax, when examining statistics from 2013 on New York State Counties, there are 14 counties under 50,000 in population like Orleans County and four in the Finger Lakes Region, of which we are a part. Orleans County ranks as the fourth highest for the percentage of sales tax shared.

However, two of the 14 counties have cities (Cortland and Montgomery) that are able to preempt and capture much larger shares of the overall revenue. Dropping those two counties lifts Orleans County to number two in the state among small counties without a city in terms of sharing sales tax, second to Schuyler County, the home of Watkins Glen International Speedway.

Delving further into those same statistics, it’s evident that eight of the 14 counties do not share sales tax revenue at all, zero percent. So, the majority of small counties in New York State do not share sales tax. Orleans County is the only county in the Finger Lakes Region under 50,000 in population that actually shares sales tax revenue.

The local law enforcement community in Orleans County is about to embark on a comprehensive study of the way we are doing business. Orleans County and our partners, the Villages of Albion, Medina, Holley and Lyndonville, along with the Orleans County Sheriff’s Office, and all the law enforcement unions in the county have agreed to undertake a process to look at new service models and explore
what can be done.

There are ways to change the way we do business that could guarantee that our communities are never negatively reported on the annual list put out by the Empire Center again.

This is going to be hard and it will require that we work together. This legislature is bound and determined to make positive change for all within our county. We can begin to say goodbye to the dark cloud over our heads. Those that offer only criticism and opposition absent of solutions will be forgotten. This legislature will be remembered for leading and making a difference.