The negotiation for implementing a 2 percent cap on property tax increases in underway in Albany, with preliminary talk suggesting the matter could be tied into extending rent regulations.
It makes sense.
Property taxes are a concern of voters in more rural, upstate areas that Senate Republicans represent, while stable rent is a concern of downstate voters that the Assembly Democrats are concerned about.
Here's what doesn't make sense.
I haven't met a town supervisor, village mayor or school business administrator yet who believes they can provide services their residents expect with a 2 percent cap in place.*
"Until we reform the cost drivers and mandates that have led to high property taxes, we will not be able to continue to provide essential services under the 2 percent cap," West Carthage Village Mayor Scott Burto wrote in a March letter to Sen. Patty Ritchie.
Burto, who would support the tax cap if it were paired with mandate relief, offered me some figures to back up his claim.
If West Carthage were allowed to raise their property taxes by 2 percent, that would generate an additional $10,387 in tax revenue. His preliminary estimates are that health care, pension and workers' compensation - three mandated items - will increase by $30,334.
With that disparity, West Carthage officials will need to cut back in other areas if a cap were implemented.
If state-imposed mandates continue to increase while municipalities are constrained in their ability to raise money, there will eventually come a year where trustees cannot cut anything more and still be able to justify why they are taking taxes from their constituents.
Consolidation may buy them a few more years. Eventually, that new municipality will face the same issue.
Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush seems to understand this predicament.
The Black River Republican should, as he until recently oversaw a county Legislature whose budget contained $70.7 million worth of state mandates. The state gave $34.7 million to Jefferson County to offset those mandate costs, leaving $35.9 million for the county to cover.
That $35.9 million is 75 percent of the county's tax levy, or 45 percent of its tax levy and its sales tax revenue.
"We must not only cap increases, but support unfunded-mandate relief on local governments," Blankenbush said in a recent news release. "New Yorkers pay the highest real-estate taxes in the nation; we must provide property tax relief now. I won't be silenced on the matter until comprehensive property tax reform is achieved."
Blankenbush's influence is diminished, however, by his standing as an Assembly minority member.
In the Senate, Sen. Patty Ritchie helped pass a bill to prohibit future unfunded mandates. (The Assembly hasn't taken that up either.) The legislation doesn't address the current imbalance Burto has identified between his village's potential revenue and its existing liabilities, however.
Ritchie and her fellow Republicans are trying to apply public pressure on the Assembly Democrats by launching a petition drive on PassTheTaxCap.com.
This may have unintended consequences.
If Republican succeed, the cap would be in place - but the mandates would exist.
With the budget settled, I wonder how eager the Legislature would be to subsequently ease mandates without putting their own spending plan out of whack.
Ritchie, Blankenbush and others have said the cap is good policy for the taxpayer.
They're half right.
Without tying the bill to something that reduces existing mandates, they might find they've succeeded in helping the taxpayer pay less only to see them receive far less service in return.
As always, I welcome your comments.
* As Mayor Graham has noted on his blog, "I do agree with my friend from West Carthage when he says a cap needs to be concurrent with these much talked about mandate reliefs....but since that will never happen, the tax cap will be the only control available."
In a follow-up conversation, I told the mayor I'd be happy to sit down with a copy of the city budget and see how long he could make the tax cap work before it cut a service the majority of his constituents came to expect from their government.
In case you're wondering, the city would be able to raise an additional $150,000 if the cap were in place. Their estimated pension cost increase for 2012 is $887,349. I'd imagine we'll get to that point pretty quickly.