ALBANY - Friday, local government officials from Warren, Essex and Hamilton counties and other areas of the Adirondacks and Catskills region convened in Albany to protest Gov. Paterson's proposed cap on property-tax payments the state makes on land it owns.
The demonstration was hosted and coordinated by the New York State Association of Counties.
Association Executive Director Stephen J. Acquario said this pending proposal was an unreasonable and devastating burden for local governments to shoulder.
He said counties in the Adirondacks and Catskills were already suffering high unemployment rates and reduced sales tax revenues, and without a reduction of state-mandated services, the tax cap would bloat the tax burden.
"We're already suffering a financial crisis unlike any time before," he said, noting that school districts would be disproportionately affected. "The impact of this proposal will have unexpected consequences."
As the Catskills and Adirondacks are dependent on tourism while industry and land development are severely restricted, municipalities of the two regions are dependent on the state land tax payments to provide basic services, he said.
"Residents will be paying more towards what is clearly a state obligation," he said.
William Farber, chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Hamilton County, noted at the protest meeting how his county is at the mercy of the state, with half of its acreage under state prohibitions banning development or logging, two primary sources of revenue.
Also, the unemployment rate is 10 percent, among the highest in the state.
"This tax cap is wholly inappropriate and bad public policy," he said. "Many Senior citizens who originally homesteaded their property will have to sell it and move elsewhere because they can't afford the property taxes."
In the town of Arietta, Farber cited as an example, the state owns 90 percent of the land, and pays 3/4 of the property taxes - the main source of income for local government services that the state mandates.
The remaining private property would have to shoulder the burden that the state is shedding, he said, multiplying any property-tax shortfall by four times.
If a routine annual tax increase of 3 percent were capped to zero by the state, Farber said, private property owners would suffer a 12 percent increase.
"This tax cap flies in face of the state Constitution, and its impact on education will be devastating," he said.
Essex County Manager Dan Palmer said the state of New York's tax cap meant a first-year savings of about $8.5 million, of which about $800,000 or a full 9 percent of this burden would be shouldered by only 38,000 Essex County residents - a devastating, disproportionate amount per person.
"This is an incredibly unbalanced proposal," he said. "Let's not slam the residents of Adirondacks who are least likely to afford it."
Of this $800,000 Essex County shortfall, $450,000 would be shouldered by taxpayers in his county's school districts, he said.
"How can the state save money on the back of residents of Essex County, which is already in a financial crisis," he said.
Linda Kemper, Chair of the Intercounty Legislative Committee of the Adirondacks had a similarly dire warning.
"In Fulton County, statistics show that 89 percent of our families are struggling," she said. "Already, families are leaving, our young people drive far to find jobs, we're losing our homes, and our businesses are closing - we can't afford to shoulder this new burden."
She said the state needed to pay their fair share, according to the state Constitution.
"State legislators have no idea what it's like to live in our communities and live on our income and struggle to survive," she said, adding that humans were the "endangered species" in the Adirondacks.
Warren County Board of Supervisors Chairman Fred Monroe was more sedate in his protest.
He said the state should stop purchasing land if it couldn't pay a reasonable tax rate to local governments to maintain and service it.
"This proposed tax cap is discriminatory," he said, noting the taxpayers of rural municipalities were alone shouldering the burden to make up for the state budget shortfall.
He said the tax cap would cost Warren County taxpayers $300,000 in 2009 in school taxes, and $200,000 to the county government.
Acquario said his organization would help the counties launch a lawsuit challenging the cap if it is enacted.
"We will sue, we will litigate this issue in the courts if the governor and legislators don't reverse this proposal," he said.