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Tax cap opponents shift tactics


NEW PALTZ -- Opponents of the state's new 2 percent property tax cap are shifting tactics by calling for a "circuit breaker" that would shift the burden for funding schools and local government toward income taxes.

That was one of the pieces of strategy discussed Monday at a gathering of tax protesters, union-backed activists and local lawmakers at the Mohonk Mountain House.

Many members of this group opposed the cap, even as they acknowledged that property taxes in New York are out of sight.

They noted that capping a levy -- the amount of money a taxing entity such as a school district or county can raise each year -- may limit future growth of property taxes, but it provides little in the way of immediate relief.

Because of the property tax burden, "We've got people as we speak who are losing their homes; they can't wait five or 10 years," said John Whiteley of Ticonderoga.

Like others at the meeting, Whitely belongs to the Omnibus Consortium, a wide-ranging group that last year wrestled with the property tax cap.

The group included some who are agnostic on the concept of a cap, along with organizations such as the Fiscal Policy Institute and New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness who were allied with teachers unions in opposing the cap.

Instead of the cap, they have long supported a circuit breaker that would promise homeowners a reduction in their income taxes if they paid over a certain percent of that income toward property taxes.

Those advocates would now like to see the circuit breaker alongside the cap. The money for that income tax break, however, would have to come from the state.

Proponents say extension of the high-income personal income tax surcharge -- pushed by advocates as the "millionaires' tax" -- that's due to expire at the end of the year could fund a circuit breaker. But so far Gov. Andrew Cuomo has steadfastly opposed an extension, as has the Senate Republican majority.

Whiteley noted that of 2 million state households with incomes under $100,000, fully one-third pay more than 10 percent of their income toward property taxes.

The cap will likely hit poorer communities the hardest, added Betsey Swan of the League of Women Voters, a former school board member.

Since the property tax levies already are lower in poor communities, the 2 percent limit makes it that much harder to catch up.

Cuomo, however, has called for higher school aid, especially for poor districts, for the next two years.

Still, the complaint that counties and school districts will have to make deep cuts to keep their tax levy under 2 percent has become a mantra among local officials, and it was repeated at Monday's gathering.

One of the approximately 120 present asked if counties might ultimately be driven into bankruptcy by the squeeze, although panelists provided no clear indication if that was possible.

Others urged a steady push for a high-income surcharge to fill the gap. While the current surcharge applies to those who earn more than $200,000, some have suggested a tax on those earning more than $1 million is more politically feasible.

Ron Deutsch of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness said there are about 65,000 people who earn more than $1 million in the state. But of that number, 29,000 don't even live in New York: They commute from New Jersey or Connecticut but are taxed where they earn their living.

"Unsustainable property taxes have really become a middle-class problem in New York state," Deutsch said.

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