Deciphering Your County Tax Bill

I am always amused this time of year when I receive the county tax bill. It actually comes as a town tax bill but then, after you have analyzed the numbers, you see that about 95 percent of the money is actually going to the county. Sometimes I think that only in New York could someone invent such a convoluted system of revenue collection, but maybe it happens this way in other states.

The first big breakdown in the bill is called “Medicaid” and it constitutes about 50 percent of the bill. The truth of the matter is that the county had the opportunity a few years ago to get out of the Medicaid business but chose to stay in it. It didn’t want to give up its share of the state sales tax which was a part of the deal. I have always thought that the county lost an opportunity when it chose not to opt out of Medicaid. It is a program over which the county has no control. Medicaid is a state and federal program. Let them run it and pay for it.

Nine percent of the county tax bill is slated for “community colleges.” This is one of those state “mandates” passed years ago by the state legislature which, in my view, has had the positive effect of giving JCC a reliable revenue source to ensure that our high school graduates have a local option in pursuing higher education. Why it is listed separately on the county tax bill is not clear.

Perhaps, the most confuscated designation in the tax bill is what is called the “county tax” which is about 40 percent of the bill. This is apparently referring to the additional monies the county spends on everything else, other than the community college and Medicaid. Yet, whatever is in the county budget, no matter how it is spent, is a general obligation of the county and must be paid. Thus, in truth, the county tax is not just 40 percent of the bill, it is the whole thing!

Some counties in New York state believe in simplicity and just send out a simple tax bill without any breakdown. At least that would save on ink. If the deep thinkers in Mayville want us to know how our dollars are being spent, perhaps they should change reporting segments from time to time and let us know what is being spent on the health department, the highway, the sherriff’s department or other parts of county government. Another thought would be that when announcing the county levy, they could advise the general public of how much the sales tax brought in and if that still exceeds the local cost of Medicaid. A more informed citizenry is always a good idea.

In the meantime, most of us will look at our town tax bills, go to the line which says “total taxes due,” then send a check to our local tax collector who will, in turn, send 95 percent or so of it up to Mayville. Quite a system!

A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.