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The state is in a real hole here and the counties have no interest in them simply passing the hole on to us.

Counties fear squeeze of state mandates, tax cap

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If Albany approves a cap on property tax increases this winter, counties in the North Country could find themselves squeezed tighter than ever before.

They already facing rising demand for government services, at a time when costs for pensions, insurance, and fuel are also going up.

And the state pays less and less each year to cover the costs of programs that are mandated by New York's legislature.

With revenues already slipping in many counties, a property tax cap could push them deep into the red. Brian Mann has our story.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

It’s important to understand a little more about this peculiar relationship between Albany and the local property taxes we all pay here at home.  

One way to see it a little more clearly is to imagine what a very different system might look like. 

Here’s Bill Farber, head of the Hamilton County board of supervisors.

"The state of New York is going to provide probation services...and send in the people to do it.  Or the state of New York is going to provide the public defense system, and they're going to send in the staff to do it."

Sounds simple, right?  The state wants something done – in fact, the state requires that something get done – so the state uses its own taxing powers to pay for it.

But for decades, that hasn’t happened. 

Instead, Albany has worked out complicated funding formulas that place more and more of the burden on local governments. 

"By mandating it and then funding a portion of the cost that is somewhere in the neighborhood of 25% of the cost and thrusting the rest of the cost on the property taxpayer is wrong," he said.

Farber thinks that could happen again.

"The state is in a deep hole here," he said, "and the counties have no interest in them simply passing the hole on to us."

Medicaid is the big cost.  But when all the mandates are added together, counties wind up spending 90 percent of their tax-revenue on things that Albany is making them do. 

Steve LaVigne with the state Association of Counties.

"Medicaid alone costs property taxpayers over $7 billion a year.  So if the state were to take over full fiscal responsibility for the Medicaid program, the counties could begin to reduce the property tax," LaVigne argued.

A lot of people think funding all these services through income taxes rather than property taxes would be more fair. 

 Elderly people, for example, might own a nice expensive house – but they might also live on a small, fixed income. 

 But as the debate over capping property taxes and shifting management of these programs goes forward, one other thing is important to understand:  these cuts will hurt,no matter who makes them.

 They’ll almost certainly mean fewer services.  Some counties are even contemplating closing or privatizing their nursing homes.

 They’ll also mean far fewer jobs.  Again, Steve Lavigne.

 "Counties are cutting staff.  They're eliminating programs," he said.  "They are looking at every way they can to put their budgets in balance without having to go to the property tax payer for more."

Complicating this further, says Hamilton County’s Bill Farber, is that local governments are also seeing costs rise – for health insurance and pensions – while their own revenues from property taxes and sales taxes are slipping.

"Our [local] revenues are down," he said.

Farber says he knows county workers and their families are frightened by the possibility of layoffs.  But he also says for too long, people relied on public-sector jobs – paid for in part by Albany — to fuel the North Country’s economy

 "It just strikes me that this is an inevitability that people should have been able to see coming," he said.

"The solution to the Adirondack economy was not the infusion of more public sector jobs.  That well was only so deep and at some point it would start to dry up."

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