By GREGORY ZELLER //
In case New York’s 62 county executives thought Gov. Andrew Cuomo was joking – he wasn’t.
The governor visited Suffolk County’s H. Lee Dennison administration building Wednesday morning to double down on two mandates he laid out during January’s state-of-the-state tour: an extension of New York’s “millionaire’s tax” and a call for county leaders to rally the state’s disparate local governments on a cost-sharing quest.
Cuomo was in fine comedic form; his press conference before a handpicked audience of regional rainmakers even included a zinger at beleaguered Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano’s expense. But the governor wasn’t kidding about a three-year extension of the state’s “temporary” income-tax surcharge on millionaires – it’s been in effect since 2009 – which Cuomo said would raise about $3.5 billion this year.
That’s a critical chunk of change if the governor’s progressive 2017 agenda is to be realized, particularly notions of increased school aid and middle-class tax cuts. And Cuomo dismissed the argument that the so-called “millionaire’s tax” – paid by roughly 47,000 New York households – would drive 1-percenters out of New York, noting the eight-year-old tax hasn’t caused any millionaire migrations to date.
“They’re not going to leave now,” Cuomo told Wednesday’s audience.
The governor also wasn’t laughing when he turned up the heat on local-government consolidation, which he sees as key to reversing New York’s staggering property taxes.
The Empire State doesn’t only have the nation’s highest property-tax rates, Cuomo noted, “it’s not even close.” And while Albany often takes the blame, “it’s really not about the state,” according to the governor, but “the structural makeup of the state and the number of local governments we have.”
His directive, first laid out in January: County executives are to convene meetings of local governments – town boards and water districts, for instance – and brainstorm plans to share material purchases and services where possible, eliminating redundancies and cutting overhead to the point where local property taxes can begin receding.
Each cost-savings plan would be put to a public vote in a November referendum. Counties that fail to pass a consolidation strategy will be required to try, try again.
Running through some unintentionally comical numbers – hundreds of local governing bodies, thousands of statewide “special districts,” all adding to the property-tax burden – Cuomo practically shamed the state’s county executives to action in his Wednesday monologue, picking off their likely excuses one at a time.
Among them: The executives’ limited legal authority to summon town and village administrators, school boards and special-district directors, and the “basic human need” to embrace what’s-mine-is-mine thinking.
“I understand,” Cuomo said. “I like to have my own stuff, too. It’s mine, and you can’t even borrow it because you’ll probably break it.”
But local leaders “have no choice,” the governor added, citing a problem not just for homeowners – who pay averages of $9,000 in Suffolk and $11,000 in Westchester in annual property taxes, according to Cuomo, compared to national averages closer to $3,000 – but for the state economy.
“When businesses talk about the tax burden in New York, it’s property tax,” he said. “And it’s a pure functional of locality.”
Calling the strategy “a common-sense plan to promote fiscal responsibility and put more money back into hardworking Long Island taxpayers’ pockets,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said he was all for rounding up local leaders for a sit-down.
“Without conversations, you can’t have consolidation,” Bellone said Wednesday. “This plan presents county executives across the state with a unique opportunity to forge consensus with local governments on the best ways to share services and find efficiencies that will reduce duplicative spending.”
Although he wasn’t in attendance at Wednesday’s press event – Cuomo quipped about his empty chair – Mangano released a statement through the governor’s office supporting the consolidation initiative.
“The governor is leading the way forward with a new plan to help municipalities come together to reduce waste, share services and find efficiencies,” Mangano said. “This proposal will find innovative ways to save taxpayer money.”
It’s not the first time the governor has tackled the property tax issue. Mangano referenced a 2 percent property tax-increase cap instituted two years ago by the Cuomo administration that already “challenges government to do more with less property taxes.”
But that cap – which is projected to save statewide ratepayers roughly $16 billion through still-being-tabulated 2016 – is “not enough,” according to the governor, who said “the ideal is to reduce property taxes, not just slow their growth.”
His consolidation strategy – two towns sharing one road-paving machine, three police departments bulk-purchasing new patrol cruisers – is an “inarguable” step in that direction, he added.
“There have to be efficiencies,” Cuomo said. “Suffolk County has 400 local governments. Thirteen-hundred dump trucks. It can’t be that every local government has to have its own thing and do everything itself, and we can’t find shared efficiencies.
“There have to be ways to save money.”