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Groups debate pros, cons of property tax cap

BLAKE JONES--bjones@poststar.com |

Groups arguing for and against a property tax cap for New York state are growing more vocal as the end of the legislative session nears.

The New York State Association of Realtors, the Business Council of New York State Inc. and Unshackle Upstate have been arguing for the proposed cap, which they say is necessary to provide relief to homeowners and businesses who pay the highest tax rates in the nation.

As the proponents press for action on the cap before lawmakers leave Albany on June 20, opponents are raising their voices against the plan, which they say will hurt local schools and governments.

Last month, Cuomo and leaders in both houses of the Legislature agreed to a cap, though some key details, such as a sunset provision, were left undecided. No action has been taken, however.

Under Cuomo's proposal, municipal and school district property tax increases would be limited to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. A public vote would be necessary to override that cap.

Many local officials have been skeptical of their ability to meet state and federal mandates that drive up costs. Teachers' unions and school districts share those concerns.

New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness, which represents an array of organizations and lawmakers, said Wednesday that the hard cap would limit local control and hurt local services.

The group said a circuit breaker that links property taxes to income is the best way to relieve the burden on individuals.

"We must continue to look for the fairest and most equitable ways to fix our upside-down tax system that takes the pressure off of the property tax and places it onto state taxes based on ability to pay," said Ron Deutsch of New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness.

John Whiteley, of the New York State Property Tax Reform Coalition, agreed. He said a cap doesn't help people who are already shouldering an unsustainable property tax burden.

"A standalone cap will probably make their situation worse," he said. "A circuit breaker is the only measure that will really help them, and it is needed now."

But those who support a cap say it should be the first of many reforms to control the costs of local government and school districts.

"A cap will help bring fiscal discipline to government and dramatically improve the business climate in the state," said Heather Briccetti, acting-president and CEO of the Business Council of New York State. "Businesses will not come, stay, and grow in New York unless we get control of property taxes, and this cap will do just that."

For its part, the New York State Association of Realtors believes a cap would inject "new life into the housing market and overall economy." The association has focused its largest media campaign ever on the issue because property taxes are forcing people out of homes and out of the state, said Michael Kelly III, the association's director of government affairs.

Kelly acknowledged that a tax cap alone will not fix state and local problems and should be followed by mandate relief and efficiencies such as consolidation.

"There has to be a cap first to push for mandate relief," Kelly said during a meeting with The Post-Star editorial board on Wednesday.

He noted that a vote for a property tax cap is not a vote against schools and pointed to Massachusetts as a successful example.

That state enacted a property tax cap decades ago and has since fallen to the middle of the pack in terms of taxes, while its students rank high on national assessment exams