Imposed in 1991 to avoid an unacceptable increase in property taxes, the sales-tax extension was supposed to sunset in 1993. But of course like most taxes it has been with us ever since. As a sop to its Conservative Party allies, GOP lawmakers agreed to a four percent cap on annual property-tax increases while the extension was in effect. The cap lasted about five years, after which the Republicans proceeded to tax the pants off the public. In 2005, Democrats, after a 39 percent tax increase, took charge. Republicans returned in 2009.
The compact to hold the line on property taxes via the sales tax formed the basis for what is now standard fiscal rationale, i.e., if we don’t get a sales-tax renewal, property taxes will escalate dramatically. A percentage point increase on the property tax is worth about $770,000 in revenue.
According to the county executive, some $27 million is at stake — about $24 million for the county, $2.9 million for the city of Kingston and rest for the 20 towns.
So why wasn’t the county’s sales-tax extension request routinely approved with that of most other counties rather than waiting for the last minute?
Egos, I’d guess.
Kevin Cahill, a key player in all this, has never been a sales-tax guy. A liberal/progressive to his bones, Cahill has always viewed sales taxes as unequal burdens on the people who can least afford it. Not that he favors property taxes; he prefers the graduated income tax as the fairest way to raise revenue.
Cahill did not vote for the original sales-tax resolution when he was in the county legislature and he has never sponsored county sales-tax legislation as an assemblyman. But there are ways around recalcitrant state legislators. In the past, Orange County Republican Tom Kirwan has carried the bill in the Assembly. In the Senate, local senators John Bonacic and Bill Larkin are of the opinion that under home rule pretty much anything the counties want is fine with them. The Ulster bill passed the Senate this year by the usual unanimous vote.
But this year is a little different with the county and its resident Democratic assemblyman.
Cahill and county executive Mike Hein really don’t get along, which is something of an understatement. Come to think of it, Cahill didn’t get along too well with former mayor T.R. Gallo and isn’t exactly a cheerleader for the Jim Sottile administration. All are (were) Democrats, incidentally.
If I could figure it out, I might suggest a pattern here. Back in April, Mike Hein and chief of staff Adele Reiter paid a courtesy visit on their assemblyman around the corner to solicit his support on the sales-tax bill and to seek mandate relief. At the time, similar sales-tax legislation for some 30 other counties was breezing through the Assembly.
To call their hat-in-hand house call a collective waste of shoe leather would again be an understatement. Mostly what they got from Cahill, I’m told, was a lecture on how the state mandates Hein continually deplores provide significant revenue for a myriad of county programs. How much? By the assemblyman’s unchallenged calculation, about a billion dollars a year, almost three times Hein’s annual county budget.
In the past, Cahill has eschewed using his considerable clout in the assembly to block Ulster sales-tax extensions. The buzz around the county office building is that he’s willing to trade his support of sales tax legislation for county takeover (worth about $3 million a year) of safety net expenses currently charged to the towns and city. Cahill voted for a budget that reduced the state’s share of those expenses from 50 percent to 29 percent.
“If this is a cat and mouse game, it’s a game that’s just too expensive for county taxpayers,” Minority leader Jeanette Provenzano said, of negotiations between the assemblyman’s office and county officials.
Cahill was in session and unavailable for comment, but the fact that sales tax legislation, all but automatic in the past, remained on the back burner unto the closing bell gives pause.
Failure by the state to pass the sales-tax extender could — more likely, would — trigger the kind of draconian measures that would render even a slash-and-burner like Hein apoplectic.
Agree with her or not, Kingston Republican mayoral candidate Andi Turco-Levin comes across as something of an original thinker. We could use a little more of that in a city festooned with stop signs.
Turco, as she’s known locally, had another interesting idea this week that should strike close to home. She suggests the city could pick up a portion of the cost of sidewalk repair in front of private property. Mayor Sottile, a Democrat set to retire in December, was cool. No wonder. Sidewalks were hardly a priority during Sottile’s near ten-year run, the busted-up stretch of bluestone in front of the city hall being but one graphic example.
Sidewalks, to the surprise of some new homeowners, are their responsibility, not the city’s. In fact, a rarely enforced city ordinance can fine people for not shoveling their sidewalks in winter. Sidewalks, the ordinance states, are to be maintained by property owners.
Turco suggests the city could kick in say ten percent of the cost of sidewalk repair over a period of time. Sottile says that’s not fair to people who have either repaired sidewalks on their own or other residents whose properties don’t require work.
As with most provocative ideas, Turco’s proposal should produce discussion. For instance, should the city be responsible for what are public thoroughfares and are in some cases hazardous? And what might that cost?
Independence Party chairman Len Bernardo has announced endorsements of twelve Republicans and eight Democrats in the county’s 23 legislative districts. Nominations are unofficial. Candidates must still circulate petitions among the county’s 2500 Independence Party members in their respective districts by July 16 in order to get on the November ballot.
On the Republican side, the Independence Party endorsed John Valk in District 1 (Saugerties), Robert Aiello in District 2 (Saugerties), Dean Fabiano in District 3 (Saugerties, Ulster), James Maloney in District 4 (Ulster, Kingston), Wayne Harris in District 9 (Plattekill, Lloyd), Mary Beth Maio in District 10 (Lloyd, Marlborough), Richard Gerentine in District 11 (Marlborough), Kenneth Ronk in District 13 (Shawangunk), Craig Lopez in District 14 (Shawangunk) Jack Hayes in District 16 (Gardiner, Shawangunk), Terrence Ward in District 20 (Village of New Paltz) and Terry Bernardo (Bernardo’s wife) in District 21 (Rochester, Wawarsing),
Democrats endorsed by the Independence Party included Peter Loughran, Jeanette Provenzano and Mike Madsen (City of Kingston), Susan Zimet in District 17 (New Paltz, Esopus), Richard Parete in District 18 (Hurley, Marbletown), Robert Parete in District 19 (Rosendale,Marbletown), and John Parete in District 22 (Olive, Shandaken, Denning and Hardenburgh) The Paretes are brothers. John Parete is their father. Donald Gregorius was endorsed in District 23 (Woodstock, West Hurley).++
Hugh Reynolds column appears weekly.