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Cuomo begins new push for tax freeze proposal, counties have alternative plan

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is starting a new push for his property tax freeze plan, while counties in the state say they have a better idea which could result in lower property taxes in New York for even longer.

Cuomo has begun a new campaign to promote his multi-part property tax freeze plan. It’s aimed at enlisting the aid of the public to help convince the legislature. A video features average homeowners and advocacy groups endorsing his plan.

“Lower our property taxes,” say various people identified as homeowners and standing in front of suburban looking homes.

The governor’s proposal hinges on local governments, schools, even water and library districts, agreeing to limit spending growth to two percent a year and consolidate some services. The state would make up the difference and send rebate checks to home and business owners. After two years, a more limited number of property taxpayers would get rebate checks, in what’s known as a circuit breaker, based on a ratio of income to the amount of taxes owed.

Cuomo argues that the state has cut spending and now it’s time for local governments to reduce costs and consolidate. He made his points most recently at a budget presentation in Niagara Falls.

“Size matters in government," Cuomo said. "More employees, that’s how the political system works. I get it. We can’t afford it anymore. And the local governments are going to have to find a way to do business in a different way."  

In a new report, the New York Association of Counties says Cuomo’s plan is complex and would require a new tax bureaucracy to administer the plan. They also think it would be confusing and not be very transparent for taxpayers.

Steve Aquario, with the association, says counties have a simpler idea for permanent and more meaningful property tax reduction. He says the state could participate in consolidations too, and take over a larger share of the counties’ portion of Medicaid, which represents fixed health care costs they say they can’t always control.

“Look, if you just picked up the local share of Medicaid expenditures, $2 billion,” Aquario said. “We could cut the property taxes in half, permanently.”  

Aquario says the state could also more easily reign in rising Medicaid costs. He says when state officials took over the growth in Medicaid spending from counties a few years ago, the average yearly increase dropped from eight percent to three. The counties say the state could also help out with costs for pre-kindergarten special education, and public defender expenses.

Aquario admits those plans would require a longer term commitment from the state than the governor’s two year freeze proposal.

The counties’ plan does not include a rebate check to voters in the fall, but Aquario says if the state wants to reimburse any savings from a Medicaid takeover by sending out checks, counties don’t have a problem with that.  

He stops short, though, of ascribing election year motives to the governor’s plan.

“Some can say it’s a political move, I understand that, but I think others can say it’s a legitimate public policy issue that needs to be addressed,” Aquario said. “What we’re saying, from the regional government level, is that there are other ways to do this.”

The counties’ ideas for cutting taxes would not apply to school districts, which make up for a higher percentage of the average homeowners tax bill.

Aquario says county leaders, as well as other local government leaders, will be lobbying members of the legislature in the weeks leading up to the state budget deadline.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.