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I think it is much better than the previous version that passed the Senate. I think it gives a little bit more local control.

Assembly reps comfortable with tax cap progress

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Governor Andrew Cuomo saw one of his legislative goals for the current session take a huge step forward earlier this week, as lawmakers announced they were close to a deal on a property tax cap.

The state Senate passed tax cap legislation earlier this year - a bill that essentially mirrored Cuomo's proposal.

This week, the state Assembly got on board, unveiling their version of the bill - and as Chris Morris reports, lawmakers from the North Country are, for the most part, pleased with the legislation.

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Chris Morris
Tri-Lakes Correspondent

Speaking to hundreds of supporters in Lake Placid last week, Governor Cuomo hammered lawmakers – many from his own party – for not taking the tax cap seriously.

“This Legislature should listen to the people, not the lobbyists, and pass this agenda,” he said. “Let’s move this state forward.”

Judging by the legislation rolled out earlier this week by the Assembly, that message is starting to hit home.

The Assembly bill limits property tax growth to 2 percent annually, or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. It also adds a few exceptions to Cuomo’s proposal, specifically in the case of high pension costs, court judgments, and unforeseen increases to the local tax base.

Cuomo had previously said he wouldn’t accept a bill that attempted to soften his proposal. He also panned the notion of signing legislation that linked his tax cap to other issues.

But the Assembly proposal does just that, linking the tax cap to a New York City rent control law. Policymakers say, however, that the bills were “evaluated separately,” apparently satisfying Cuomo.

“This state is so diverse and has such diverse constituencies that we’ve got to look at it as a whole state. That’s not always easy, it’s not always our preference, but it’s the reality of the world we live in, work in, and pass legislation in.”

Republican Assemblywoman Janet Duprey says tying the tax cap bill to rent control wasn’t her first preference. But she says without rent control, New York City Democrats weren’t going to bite.

She also notes that some of the arguments made by working people in New York City regarding rent control are similar to complaints she hears in the North Country from small business owners when it comes to property taxes.

“It’s hard to disallow one and yet push for the other,” Duprey said. “When I first heard the concept of linking them together, I was really opposed. But as I listened to the arguments and listened to the reasoning behind it, it started making more sense to me.”

And Duprey isn’t alone – most North Country Assembly members echo her sentiment regarding this week’s proposal. That is, the bill isn’t perfect – but it’s as close as Albany is going to get.

“I think it is much better than the previous version that passed the Senate. I think it gives a little bit more local control.”

Democrat Addie Russell says the Senate’s tax cap bill ties down local governments – specifically, she’s worried that highway departments and school districts won’t be able to meet the demands of rising fuel costs.

But the Assembly bill provides a little leeway. According to Teresa Sayward, the bill takes away some of the “big ticket” items that she says would be impossible for local governments and schools to meet without specific mandate relief.

In other words, costs associated with mandated social services programs won’t fall under the guise of the tax cap – the same is true for increases to pension payments.

Sayward also notes that the Senate bill didn’t allow schools and towns to count increased assessments.

“Which would have been horrible for communities and schools,” she said. “But the bill being proposed in our house will allow for schools and municipalities to count increased assessed value, which obviously will help on the other end when they’re trying to apply that to their taxes.”

Addie Russell says the tax cap discussion is leaving out one important factor, especially as it relates to the North Country.

“In the North Country, for the most part, our taxes are fairly reasonable,” she said. “We do have a couple communities that have very high property taxes, but you have to understand that many governmental units have been very prudent.”

Just last week, voters overwhelmingly approved school budgets across northern New York – many that featured tax increases below 2 percent. Meanwhile, towns and villages have been able to hold the line on taxes, and in some cases, officials have lowered taxes.

On the surface, that should mean Albany’s cap won’t have a huge impact in the North Country. But Russell says that can change all too quickly.

“If an emergency arises, or things like the price of fuel continue to escalate, 2 percent of a raise on our budgets is not very much in a dollar amount,” she said. “So communities that have done a good job of controlling their expenses are going to be put in a more difficult position when things out of their control start to increase in price.”

Despite a few reservations among North Country lawmakers, the Assembly bill looks to be headed toward passage – Democrats control that chamber and are likely to get in line behind Sheldon Silver.

Sayward and Duprey, both Republicans, say they’ll vote for the bill if it comes up for a vote next week.

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