Freezing Out Central New York

The village of Homer, the birthplace of 19th century women’s rights’ advocate Amelia Jenks Bloomer, has an exciting, vibrant past, but faces an uncertain future. 

“Things are going to be really tight,” Mayor Genevieve Suits says of the new state budget. “Last year we blew through our tax cap.” 

Blowing through the tax cap in Homer meant the village had to raise a total of $30,000, an amount not that far from what a single taxpaying McMansion owner in Westchester could conceivably pay in property taxes in a single year. 

But Central New York is not Westchester. 

Homer (pop. 3,291 at the 2010 Census) has an annual budget of $3.5 million. It is located smack in the middle of New York State in rural Cortland County. It receives about $32,000 in Aid and Incentives for Municipalities [AIM] money from the state. 

“Next year my hands are tied, because now I have no choice because of what the governor just did with the tax freeze,” says Mayor Suits. “I don’t have a lot of room to move.” 

I don’t recommend thinking about this image and the attire of Homer’s most famous resident at the same time. 

Mayor Suits’ fears about the new tax freeze are being echoed in many of Central New York’s villages, towns and cities. 

“I’m not comfortable with it,” says City of Auburn Mayor Mike Quill. “Probably my biggest concern is, when you break it down between the city, the county and the school district, it doesn’t leave our residents a lot of money that they will be getting back from the government.” 

In other words, residents of Central New York shouldn’t expect much. 

Whether a taxpayer sees a substantial rebate check depends on where she lives. 

If the local government and school district keep tax growth under the 2 percent cap, then a resident could be issued a check worth up to 2 percent of his property tax bill. According to State Budget Director Robert Megna, the rebates will be amortized among all county residents. 

While Megna expects that the average check for Cortland County taxpayers will be between $150 and $200, his claim faces serious skepticism. One the most vocal naysayers is Dick Donovan, the president of the New York Conference of Mayors (NYCOM) and mayor of the Onondaga County village of Minoa (pop. 3,450). 

“The money that potentially my taxpayers are gonna get, the bulk of it is going to come out of the school system, if they participate,” says Donovan. “In my village it might amount to 10 or 15 dollars. So from where I sit, it’s just—and I probably shouldn’t say this on tape—but it’s just political rhetoric. It’s not going to benefit the local government at all.” 

Megna says while there may be confusion among local officials about the tax rebates now, it will become clearer as they begin implementing the system. 

Again, Donovan disagrees. He expects even more confusion, especially when local governments realize they have to share services and/ or consolidate while at the same time honoring previously negotiated union contracts. 

“The Wicks Law, the Triborough Amendment. And you throw in prevailing wage? Oh, my God, it gets ugly,” says Donovan. “I would like to go hide.” 

Not everyone has the same grim reaction to the tax freeze plan. Supporters include Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, who backs the governor’s primary goal: to reduce the number of local governments, and therefore save taxpayers money. According to Mahoney, Onondaga County alone has a lot of work to do, with 15 police departments, 57 fire departments, 19 towns and 15 villages. 

“Why does everyone need their own snow removal?” she asked, rhetorically, on The Capitol Pressroom

While the tax freeze has its proponents and detractors, the addition of $40 million to the budget for upstate infrastructure repair has been greeted with almost universal approval. 

“I am eternally grateful for the CHIPs funding,” Suits said with audible relief. 

The Consolidated Local Highway Improvement Program (or CHIPs) is a budget line for transportation funding. $40 million was added this year in light of the especially hard winter. It’s not yet clear how much each locality will receive. 

“I got guys going out right now because of a water main break,” Suits says. “Every time they go out I cringe. Is it going to be a little thing or a big thing? Our infrastructure is just so outdated.” 

“We have potholes that we could lose a small vehicle in,” says Auburn mayor Mike Quill. “It’s very hard to patch them.” 

In the first three months of this year alone, the City of Syracuse had 155 water main breaks. 

“As we say here,” Mayor Stephanie Miner confides, “it’s old and it’s been cold.” 

Because the winter has been so rough on the city’s infrastructure, the Syracuse mayor requested $16.4 million dollars in emergency infrastructure repair money from Albany. She didn’t get it, which is why any part of that additional $40 million will be so welcome. 

“We haven’t done as [many] repairs on our infrastructure. We’ve been begging, borrowing and stealing to be fiscally responsible,” says Miner. 

Much of the water and sewer infrastructure in Central New York, including the Syracuse water system, is over 100 years old. But, says Miner, “Any extra money we have we use to pay off our pensions and healthcare bills.” 

It’s not surprising that Miner did not receive her earmark. She has been at odds with the governor in the past over this very issue, questioning his tax freeze strategy as well as his priorities in light of a proposed $30 million amphitheater slated for the shores of Onondaga Lake. It should be noted that at both Syracuse-area events touting these proposals, Mayor Miner was conspicuously absent while County Executive Joanie Mahoney was featured alongside the governor. 

On March 31, just as the budget was drawing to a conclusion, Mahoney sent a letter to Miner offering $5 million in county resources to help repair five miles of the city’s most pothole-pocked streets. This is not the first time the county has come to the aid of the city. Several years ago the county Legislature voted to share additional sales tax income with Syracuse. Mahoney references that decision in her letter, writing, “It is clear that despite the increase in revenue, the city is still not able to address its basic infrastructure needs and more must be done.” 

Miner’s response to Mahoney’s letter was just as pointed. “City taxpayers pay county taxes as well,” Miner told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “I welcome the participation of the county in this.’’

Susan Arbetter (@sarbetter on Twitter) is the Emmy award-winning news director for WCNY Syracuse PBS/NPR, and producer/host of the Capitol Pressroom syndicated public radio program.