ALBANY - In a rare joint effort, political representatives and environmental interest groups alike are speaking out in strong opposition to a proposal that would freeze tax payments on state-owned land in the Adirondacks.
In his proposed budget, Gov. David Paterson included a provision that orders a cap on all property taxes currently paid by the state, making them immune to the equalization-rate adjustments made for private landowners.
The proposal creates specific concerns for forest preserve land in the Adirondacks and other areas, which is owned by the state and, according to the state Constitution, cannot be leased, logged, or developed.
Also included in the Constitution is a clause that requires such land be valued and taxed as if it were private property. It's this constitutional law that many now say is being violated, unfairly shifting the tax burden to local residents.
"While everyone has been told we have to feel 'some pain' from the current budget crisis, the people of the Adirondacks will be expected to do more," said State Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro.
"If New York State does not keep its constitutional obligation to pay full taxes on forest preserve land it will mean a loss of critical funding for municipalities, counties and schools throughout the Adirondack Park," added Sayward.
Such a loss would come in concert with other state cuts already being made to schools and other mandatory local government programs, leaving local taxpayers to make up the difference.
"This tax cap would be a dangerous precedent. You can't have two separate tax rates, one for the state and another for private property owners," said State Senator Betty Little, R-Queensbury. "It would be far more constructive for state government to work cooperatively with local governments and school districts, reduce state mandates and help them reduce property taxes for everyone."
Groups devoted mainly to protecting the forest preserve wilderness are also voicing the need to compensate municipalities for their contribution to the sustainability of the region.
"For more than a century, the Forest Preserve has provided a multitude of environmental, economic and recreational benefits for all New Yorkers, but Governor Paterson's plan would shift the burden of maintaining these crucial resources to residents of these sparsely populated areas," said Adirondack Mountain Club Executive Director Neil Woodworth. "This is not only unfair, it is bad public policy that would undermine local support for open space protection in the Adirondacks and Catskills."
"The state made a commitment in 1886 to pay full taxes on all Adirondack Forest Preserve; forever," said Brian L. Houseal, Executive Director of the Adirondack Council. "The savings to state government would be tiny, perhaps unnoticeable, but the damage done to local taxpayers and local economies would be dramatic, hitting hardest those towns with the fewest residents and the greatest amount of state land."
Sayward pointed to the increased burden it would place on taxpayers in towns like Newcomb in Essex County or Arietta in Hamilton County, both of which have 90 percent of their land owned by the state. Many towns in the Adirondack Park are at least 50 percent state-owned.
Also shouldering the burden would be large private landowners such as timber companies and conservation groups. One such group, The Nature Conservancy, also opposed the freeze.
"The state's commitment to communities who host Forest Preserve lands is critically important for the continuation of New York's successful open space protection program," said Kathy Moser, acting state director for The Nature Conservancy in New York.
"Continuing to support our local government partners in Forest Preserve regions will ensure the state can continue to protect ecologically and recreationally significant tracts of land and allow all New Yorkers to connect with these special places. We urge the governor and legislature to rethink this proposal before adopting the next state budget."