Sweet Relief Can’t Curb Bitter Taxation

There is much sugar in the state Tax Relief Commission’s recommendations released Tuesday.

The commission’s recommendations are sweet, pardon the pun, because property owners could see two years with no local property tax increases. In the first year, taxes would be frozen in jurisdictions that abide by the state’s 2 percent real property tax cap, with eligible homeowners receiving a tax rebate equal to the amount of the increase in a homeowner’s tax bill. In the second year, homeowners in jurisdictions that abide by the property tax cap would receive a rebate of their tax increase only if they reside in jurisdictions that take meaningful concrete steps toward finding permanent structural savings by sharing services with other jurisdictions or consolidating governments in their entirety.

Commission members also recommend cutting property taxes on manufacturers, a group which paid 30.8 percent of property taxes in New York state in 2012, by recommending a corporate and income tax credit equal to 20 percent of the amount of manufacturing property taxes. There is also a possibility of an enhanced credit for Upstate manufacturers.

Other recommendations include lowering corporate tax rates and simplifying the state’s tax structure, reducing the corporate tax rate for Upstate manufacturers, accelerating the phase-out of the temporary utility assessment for industrial customers, increase the estate tax exemption and lower the rate, and eliminate nuisance taxes.

All are good recommendations that should be approved by the state Legislature as part of the 2014-15 budget.

One reason to be disappointed is the commission’s plan that the property tax rebate in 2015-16 be contingent on living in jurisdictions that take “meaningful concrete steps” to share services or consolidate governments. The state’s approach ends up relying too much on the carrot and not enough on the stick. We have seen how difficult it to merge anything locally, whether it was the merger of Lakewood and Busti governments, school districts or the ongoing discussions between Jamestown and Chautauqua County over police services. While one would think taxpayers would have to think twice about approving a merger if it meant no increase in taxes for a year, we have our doubts.

We had also hoped to see some concrete suggestions from the state that would help local governments cut their costs. Much has been written about the factors that limit the potential for cuts in many municipal budgets and the state-mandated costs like pension system payments that have skyrocketed in past years. There is nothing in the commission’s report about how municipalities can rein in such costs or overcome state-related barriers. In this respect, the commission’s recommendations address the symptoms, but not the cause, of New York state’s sickness.

To that end, all the sugar in the world doesn’t make the continuing bitter pill that is taxation in New York state any easier to swallow.