(January 13, 2017) This week in his annual State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo offered his plan for reducing property taxes: let the counties do it.
This is interesting on its face since the counties’ portion of property taxes is very small…probably around 10%. But let’s dig deeper.
Pointing out that a handful of New York counties, including of course Nassau and Suffolk, boast some of the highest property taxes in the nation, the Governor blamed duplication of effort among the hundreds of components and taxing jurisdictions that make up the infrastructure of local government.
Therefore, Governor Cuomo suggested, the counties should establish committees comprised of a representative cadre of all of the different governmental entities that exist. These committees would develop proposals for cost savings, and put those proposals in front of the residents for a vote.
This is a colossal punt the likes of which even record-holding Denver Broncos kicker Matt Prater would be impressed. The dog and pony show resulting from what would surely be a herculean effort would put Ringling Brothers to shame but the resulting savings would be a drop in a very large bucket.
Cuomo specifically cited eliminating duplicative services and forming cooperative purchasing arrangements as examples of where to find savings. Are we really supposed to take him seriously? THIS is the solution to oppressively high property taxes?
The Governor is obviously correct that the number of taxing jurisdictions, from school districts to water districts to fire districts, to special districts, villages, towns, cities, counties, etc. is extraordinary and wasteful. He is also correct that if somehow these living organisms could figure out how to work together in a more efficient way, or even better, consolidate, there could be savings. Such savings, however, would be inconsequential and hardly worth the ink on the numerous press releases that would surely follow.
The lions’ share of governmental expenses, particularly in public education (which as we know, accounts for most of our property tax bill), can be attributed to salaries and benefits for current and retired employees. In fact, a recent study determined that on average in Suffolk County public schools, salaries, pensions and benefits for all employees average approximately 84% of total operational costs, with administrative salaries only accounting for about 1.6% on average of total expenses. Transportation accounts for another 6% or so; operations and maintenance another 6%.
Translation: If you could eliminate all administrative staff, you save 1.6% on average. Obviously that’s not possible. Obviously, we need transportation; we want relatively small class sizes. Sometimes we need fewer buildings based on the number of students; other times we need more. The point is, using cooperative purchasing agreements (which the schools already do) won’t save much money at all in relative terms, nor will consolidating governments or schools altogether. It does, however, make for a great headline, doesn’t it.
I don’t purport to have all the answers but I know this: pretending we’re going to lower our property tax burden here on Long Island by sharing tractors is an insult to our intelligence.