Upstate has been hearing some promising news out of Albany recently. Now it’s up to us to ensure those promises are delivered in a way that benefits our economy and our community.
The first bit of good news was the report from Commission on Property Tax Relief, led by Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, followed closely by Gov. David Paterson’s endorsement of a key element of the commission’s report. The second was the nomination of Robert Wilmers as the new chairman of Empire State Development Corp.
Let’s talk first about property taxes. The commission, on which I served as a special adviser, was charged with looking at the reasons for our state’s excessively high property taxes-79 percent higher than the national average-and suggesting ways to reduce the burden. High taxes are a significant reason why businesses and residents leave New York State for other less expensive states, and reducing those costs is essential to helping our region attract and retain its citizens and its employers.
After months of public hearings and study, the commission made four basic recommendations:
–Capping annual property tax increases at 4 percent or 120 percent of the Consumer Price Index-whichever is less. Schools would not be required to hold a public vote if the budget remains within that cap. But if the increase is greater, the school must receive 55 percent voter approval. Approval by 60 percent of voters would be required if the increase is higher and the school received an increase in state aid of 5 percent or more. The four largest school districts in New York (including Rochester) would be exempt from the cap.
–A STAR “circuit breaker” to be implemented after the property tax cap. The current STAR program needs reform as it has been ineffective at providing tax relief to residents and provides no tax relief to businesses. This new circuit breaker program would be based upon the income of taxpayers and their ability to pay the property taxes.
–Mandating relief for school districts. The commission encourages the state to change laws, especially state-imposed special education requirements that exceed the federal mandates, adding to the already high cost of the program. Reducing costly mandates will allow schools to provide quality education without significantly increasing budget expenses.
Almost immediately after the Suozzi commission released its report, Gov. Paterson stepped up to endorse the tax cap and introduced a program bill, which he urged the Legislature to act on before session ends June 23. The Legislature has shown great reluctance to even discuss the governor’s bill, arguing that the tax cap alone isn’t enough to solve the problem.
In theory, they are correct. But they are ignoring the bigger reality-which is that instituting the tax cap is an essential first step in the process, a measure that will force our elected leaders to deal with all the issues that got us into this high-tax bracket. Once the tax cap-described by Gov. Paterson himself as “a blunt instrument”- is in place, our elected officials will have no choice but to begin studying mandates and the myriad other issues that unnecessarily drive up our property taxes.
Unshackle Upstate, the coalition of more than 70 organizations representing more than 45,000 employers who employ 1.5 million New Yorkers, made tax relief a central part of its 2008 public policy agenda. We’re behind the governor’s call for a tax cap, and we’ll continue to push the region’s legislators to take on this most important matter so that upstate residents can get some serious tax relief and school districts can get out from under the many burdensome mandates that drive up costs but don’t necessarily improve education.
On to our second piece of good news for Upstate New York: Gov. Paterson’s call for Robert Wilmers to become chairman of Empire State Development, the state’s economic development agency, charged with attracting and retaining jobs for all of New York.
Unshackle Upstate had been resolute in its message to the governor: If ESDC is to return to its governance system of a single chairman, then that person had to be someone who understood and was prepared to deal with the many critical issues facing Upstate New York’s economy.
In Bob Wilmers, we got all that and more. As chairman and CEO of M&T Bank, he is a familiar and respected businessman in Upstate New York. But he also has strong relationships on Wall Street and across the state that can only be an asset as we work to revitalize upstate. As a founder and major supporter of Unshackle Upstate, Wilmers has been very vocal about what needs to be done to spur growth in our region-including reducing taxes and regulations on business.
Wilmers said it himself during the news conference to announce his nomination: Now that he’s part of the state system, if he’s not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. Unshackle Upstate believes he is up to the challenge of finding the solution and looks forward to working with him on this all-important goal.
Sandra Parker is president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. Contact her at [email protected]
06/20/2008 (C) Rochester Business Journal