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Cuomo looks to counties to solve high property tax rates

WBFO File Photo

Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing a plan that he says could cut property taxes in New York — by requiring county leaders to develop a cost-cutting plan and letting voters decide whether it’s a good idea.

As governor, Cuomo does not directly control local property taxes. But he wants to require county executives to do something about the state’s rates, which are highest in the nation. Under his plan, the county leaders would develop cost-cutting blueprints and put them on the ballot so voters could decide whether they want the reductions or not.

“The citizens can vote yes or no,” said Cuomo. “And the citizens can tell you whether they think you’re doing a good enough job of spending their money or not.”

Cuomo said the cost-cutting plans should focus on eliminating duplicative services and consider joint purchases of expensive equipment, like snowplows and ambulances. The governor spoke in Westchester County, where there are 425 separate local governments, he pointed out.

“It is insanity,” Cuomo said.

Coincidentally, the Westchester county executive, Rob Astorino, ran against Cuomo for governor in 2014. Astorino, who was not invited to the speech, in a statement called Cuomo “shameless” and said the event was “a political rally masquerading as a State of the State address.”

Other county leaders across the state were caught somewhat off guard by the proposal, which a source said was first floated last December as part of a potential special session and was rejected by lawmakers.

New York State Association of Counties Executive Director Steve Aquario did not dismiss the idea out of hand.

“The state is saying to people here it’s about time they have say in how their money is spent,” Aquario said.

But he said the plan does not address the elephant in the room: Counties run many expensive programs that are mandated by the state, but the counties are forced to come up with much of the money themselves.

Counties pay a large chunk of Medicaid health care for the poor, though the state does fund some yearly increases. Counties also foot the bill for legal services for the indigent. Cuomo on Dec. 31 vetoed a bill by the state Legislature to help bail the counties out and provide funding for some legal services.

Aquario said counties could turn the tables on Cuomo and propose that the state fully fund health care and legal representation for the poor, as well as other unfunded mandates, then give those choices to voters.

“You’d see local governments suggesting ways for the state to pay for Medicaid and then have people vote on that,” he said.

Aquario served on a mandate relief task force created by Cuomo. He said counties offered ideas, but nothing came of the panel. And he said counties already are consolidating services.

“If there are savings that are left out there right now, we’re going to try to get them,” Aquario said. “We don’t need the state to tell us to do that.”

The state’s Business Council took the middle road, saying they are pleased that Cuomo is focusing on reducing property taxes, but that it’s just “one step” and that more needs to be done to reduce workers’ compensation, pension and other costs.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.