After years of debate, New York's legislative leaders and Governor Andrew Cuomo have reached a tentative agreement to place a 2 percent cap on annual property tax increases.
Homeowners in the lower Hudson Valley grapple with some of the highest property tax bills in the nation, due largely to the fact that property tax revenue is used to fund local school districts. Rising taxes have been exacerbated by the rapidly increasing costs of pensions and other benefits for public employees.
"I can’t tell you how many times somebody has come up to me and said, ‘You have to do something about property taxes; I just can’t afford to stay in my home anymore,'" Cuomo said at a press conference, adding that the cap would "change the trajectory of this state."
According to the Tax Foundation, a conservative research group, three of the five highest-taxed counties in the country - Westchester, Rockland, and Nassau - are in New York. When property taxes are represented as a percentage of home value, the top ten highest-taxed counties all are in upstate New York.
Under the deal announced May 24, the cap would exempt the cost of public employee pensions as well as large legal settlements, and would sunset at an undetermined date. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a powerful Manhattan Democrat, said the cap would expire at the same time as a proposed extension of rent-stabilization laws. The Senate's Republican majority opposes the expansion of the current laws, which expire June 15.
The announcement provoked a mixed bag of reactions from local lawmakers. Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) is a co-sponsor of Silver's tax cap bill despite years of favoring a "circuit breaker" system, in which property taxes are tied to income.
“I have conducted a couple of polls throughout my Assembly District over the last three years, and in each of them, constituents overwhelmingly supported a property tax cap,” she said in a statement.
Members of New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teacher's union, protested outside of Galef's office last week. NYSUT and other education groups are among the staunchest opponents of the cap, while business groups are strongly in favor.
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) at Pleasantville High School last week that the cap would devastate local school districts.
The cap "starts with the premise that government, particularly education, is dispensable and we can only afford a certain amount of it," Abinanti said.
And local officials are speaking out as well. A number of education officials from Scarsdale, Chappaqua, Ossining, Eastchester and other Westchester locales traveled to Albany last week to protest the cap, saying tax increases should be left up to local residents.
"This bill continues to obligate school districts to fund top-down requirements while impairing local ability to raise revenue for essential education programs," the coalition said.
To be sure, the proposal does include a provision that would allow local residents to override the cap by a vote of 60 percent or more. But that could cause problems in places like Harrison, where school budgets historically have passed by narrow margins.
There's no word on exactly when the proposal will be voted on, but lawmakers only have until June 20 - the last day of this year's legislative session.
Here's a look at what our local lawmakers were up to between May 27 and June 3.
Assemblyman Tom Abinanti (D-Greenburgh) introduced a bill that would require lever voting machines to remain locked until 15 days before the next election, unless a machine needs to be examined for malfunctions. Lever machines are technically banned under federal law, but the state has continued to allow some local governments and school districts to continue to use them because of the cost of operating new electronic voting machines.
Assemblyman Bob Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) introduced a bill that would suspend the controversial Triborough Amendment, which requires expired public union contracts to remain in place until a new contract is signed, for two years. Critics of the amendment say it gives public-employee unions the upper hand in negotiations. The bill would also require the governor's Mandate Relief Team to compile an exhaustive list of unfunded state mandates and their approximate costs to local governments.
A second bill would create a statewide health care referral system that would provide free information to state residents. The bill also calls for the creation of up to 12 regional call centers and a new "211" phone number to allow easy access to the referral system.
Unlike many other local lawmakers, Castelli last week applauded the announcement by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver that a tentative deal has been reached on instituting a cap on property tax increases.
Assemblywoman Sandy Galef (D-Ossining) introduced a bill that would prohibit a village from having an assessor if the town of which that village is a constituent already has that office.
Another bill would require the state Department of Motor Vehicles to create a "next of kin" registry that could be utilized by the police if a person is injured or killed.
Galef also wants to establish a petition to turn the office of local highway superintendent into an appointed position. Currently, highway superintendents are elected.
The assemblywoman on June 8 will hold a forum on local energy consumption at Croton Harmon High School from 7 to 9 p.m. Speakers will include state and local officials. The next day, Galef will moderate two roundtable discussions at Cortlandt Town Hall. The first, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., will feature local education officials discussing shared services among school districts. The second, from 7 to 9 p.m., is a discussion of creative methods for local governments to save money.
Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee (D-Suffern) introduced a bill that would allow non-profit groups to accept donations of computers and pass them along to elderly and low-income people. Currently, donated computers may only be given to people with disabilities.
Gov. Cuomo last week signed into law a bill sponsored by Jaffee that, she says, will strengthen the state's ban on products that contain mercury. The law closes a loophole that allowed mercury-laden products to be sold if no non-mercury alternative was available. Mercury has been linked to a number of neurological disorders, particularly in small children.
Jaffee last week told reporters that the tax cap is a "recipe for disaster" that will have wide-reaching negative impacts on schools. The assemblywoman is sponsoring a bill that would implement a circuit breaker system, but that measure carries a price tag of at least $1 billion.
Assemblyman Steve Katz (R-Yorktown) introduced a bill that would require anyone without a pet dealer license to obtain a permit to breed animals. The one-year permit would cost $150, with the proceeds going to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Katz is teaming up with the New York State Library to sponsor a summer reading challenge for elementary and middle school students in his district. To meet the challenge, kids will have to read for at least 15 minutes on 40 days in July and August.
Assemblyman George Latimer (D-Rye) introduced a bill that would extend through 2014 an existing law that caps health insurance rates for individuals at no more than 115 percent of the cost paid by groups. The current law expires at the end of this year.
Fresh off a to air grievances about service delays on Metro North's New Haven line, Latimer is soliciting questions and comments from the public to be forwarded to MTA President Howard Permut, who will answer questions from the public at a forum on June 8 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the 5th floor boardroom of 347 Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) introduced a bill that would allow public workers who served in the military during times of peace to be eligible for up to three years of service credit for retirement. Currently, only veterans who served during periods when the U.S. was at war are allowed such a credit.
Another bill would require the Department of Health to post the results of inspections of food establishments on its website. The bill also would direct the department to create a letter grading system for such inspections.
A local bill sponsored by Paulin would allow Bronxville to seek judicial review of property tax assessment grievances, as long as the village has performed a full revaluation within the last four years, the value of the property in question is at least $450,000, and the reduction sought by the petitioner is at least 15 percent less than the village's assessment.
The Assembly last week passed a bill sponsored by Paulin that would allow Adult Protective Services to review records from Child Protective Services. The bill was a response to the 2010 murder of a disabled girl and her mother in Western New York. After the murder, it was revealed that the girl had a long history of being abused, but APS was not able to access her records from CPS.
Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski (D-New City) introduced a bill that would allow Helen Morahan, the widow of former Sen. Thomas Morahan, to collect the late senator's unpaid compensation. Morahan, a Democrat from Rockland, died of leukemia last July while still in office. The unpaid salary runs from July through the end of 2010 and totals $37,463. The bill was introduced in the Senate by David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown).
Sen. Greg Ball (R-Patterson) introduced a bill that would allow the families of public workers who are killed while serving in the military to collect death benefits, including health insurance.
Ball and Albany-area Assemblyman Jim Tedisco on June 1 held a lobbying event at the Capitol to call for the strengthening of animal cruelty laws. Ball has sponsored a number of bills to that end, and Tedisco was the sponsor of Buster's Law, which steepened the penalties for animal cruelty.
Ball's next round of mobile office hours will be held on June 11 from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Tractor Supply on Route 22 in Amenia.
Sen. David Carlucci (D-Clarkstown) on June 1 held a screening of the documentary Gasland, which explores the controversial gas-drilling method known as "hydrofracking." The screening came as state officials weigh the pros and cons of fracking, which critics say causes water, air and noise pollution. Gas companies are chomping at the bit to begin drilling in New York's Southern Tier, which is believed to hold some of the richest gas deposits in the country but is also the source of much of New York City's drinking water. Carlucci has said that he supports further study of fracking before it's allowed in the state.
Jimmy Vielkind, a Capitol reporter for the Albany Times Union, had a piece on Capital New York last week that looked at the effectiveness of the four-member breakaway Independent Democratic Conference, of which Carlucci is a member. Vielkind intimates that the group has been able to secure little power, and has taken to sponsoring and championing non-controversial bills that appeal to both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Suzi Oppenheimer (D-Port Chester) introduced a bill that would allow the village of Ossining to dissolve its justice court and merge it with the court in the town of Ossining. The town would gain an additional justice to handle the increased caseload. Assemblywoman Sandy Galef introduced the bill in her chamber.
Another local bill would provide for a second acting police justice in Port Chester.
Oppenheimer on June 12 will host a Democratic fundraiser with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at Oppenheimer's home in Mamaroneck. The event will also feature Westchester County Board of Legislators Chairman Ken Jenkins and Majority Leader Peter Harckham, and calls for donations of up to $1,000. The money is being raised to support Democrats on the County Board of Legislators.
Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) introduced a bill that would provide free lifetime hunting and fishing licenses to military veterans. An identical bill was recently introduced in the Assembly by George Latimer (D-Rye).