Two recent discussions of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's tax freeze program are just the latest examples of why things never change in New York state.
For those who don't know by now how Gov. Andrew Cuomo's property tax freeze works, here is a quick primer. Beginning in fiscal year 2015 for municipalities and fiscal year 2014 for schools, the state will refund property owners any tax increase they experience over the prior year if the municipality in which they live stays below the tax cap. Any local override of the tax cap makes homeowners ineligible for the tax freeze credit, even if the municipality stays within the cap. Year two requires that municipalities stay within the tax cap and submit a government efficiency or shared services plan demonstrating savings equal to 1 percent of the combined property tax levies for those participating in the joint plan. Efficiency plans are due to the State Division of the Budget by June 1, 2015.
Last week, Chautauqua County Executive Vince Horrigan led a shared services forum attended by 70 area elected officials while the Cattaraugus County Strategic Planning Committee also discussed shared services. Both meetings were first steps toward reaching the 2016 mandate to have a government efficiency or shared services plan. Both meetings, unfortunately, include insights that show the uphill battle shared services or consolidations face in the coming year.
In Chautauqua County, several officials questioned whether the small amount of the tax rebate property owners would receive is enough to justify the work of shared services or consolidations. That concern was also raised in Cattaraugus County, with Jack Searles, county administrator, stating "The important thing to keep in mind here, is that these only have to be plans. Right now, there is no mandate to implement the plans. That may be coming in the next iteration, however."
How shortsighted can some of our government officials be? It is important to look past Cuomo's rebate, which is certainly not what it was cracked up to be a few months ago. The small rebate is not a means to an end. It is a carrot meant to shove local governments into action. We harken back six long years to the Lundine Commission report, which included among its dozens of worthy, and largely ignored, recommendations the consolidation of small justice courts and centralizing several services at the county level, including assessing, tax collection, emergency dispatch, civil service commissions and vital records.
These are good places for local shared services discussions to begin.