Increasing Taxes Create Tough Choices

Residents blame poor financial management for a rising exodus of home owners.

Over the years we have all heard stories of families striking hard times and being forced to move from their Harrison homes when they could no longer afford even the lowest level of living costs or rents associated with the area.

More recently, there have been complaints that the next economic level of residents are also being forced out due to lowered wages and earnings coupled with the rising taxes and living expenses.

But a third group of residents is now also having to consider leaving their long-time family homes. Those in even higher economic brackets who are reaching retirement age are finding that rising local taxes and living costs, coupled with discriminatory federal tax policies against those living in municipalities with high local taxes, have outstripped their retirement financial plans. They are now having to choose between long-term planned retirement lifestyle options that include travel and leisure activities and maintaining the homes and properties they have lived in for decades.

Harvey Geller is a successful insurance broker who left New York City in 1978 and moved to Harrison with his wife to raise their family. For more than 30 years he and his wife have made Harrison their home and were more than willing to pay their taxes.

“I have always had the mindset that we were fortunate to be in the position of paying taxes and felt it appropriate that I, along with all other residents, contributed to local services and infrastructure in this way,” Geller said.

But continued increases in those taxes have forced him to make decisions about his priorities. As a result, Geller and his wife recently decided to sell their Harrison home to maintain preferred retirement activities and move elsewhere to fund them.

“In my 60s, as my income dropped and I drew from my pension plan, I fell into what is known as the alternative minimum tax category. In that tax category high local taxes become a double burden as you are prevented from deducting those local taxes from your federal return. This results in not only having to pay the increases in the local taxes, but also adds, in my case, another $10,000 a year to my federal taxes.”

This was a huge change from when Geller moved here in the 70s, when Harrison’s positive tax base was a contributing factor to choosing it over other Westchester municipalities.

“Harrison was historically one of the lowest taxed communities in Westchester County,” Geller explained. “The high corporate tax base in the town meant residents were able to pay considerably less in taxes than neighboring communities and that played into mine and many other families’ decisions to choose Harrison over other towns.”

Over the years that corporate tax base diminished because of disappearing corporations—particularly along our Platinum Mile area—and reduced taxes from the large corporations remaining in the area following successful certiorari filings. The corporate tax base markedly dissipated, resulting in an increased tax burden for other residents.

Geller said he and many others in this group would accept the increased taxes if they were due simply to a mirroring of the national economic downturn. But he is frustrated, and angry, because he believes the local government could do more to prevent it.

“The town makes some really stupid decisions,” Geller said. “Our financial management, or lack of it, along with crazy annual budgets and additional spending outside those budgets, are resulting in rapidly spiraling costs."

He is also concerned the town isn't learning from past mistakes and continues to bond and spend foolishly.

Geller said the current administration needs to be honest with residents about planned spending and what it will really mean. This way residents have a real opportunity to express their thoughts on whether that spending is worth the sacrifices it will entail.

“If I were Ron Belmont I would bite the bullet and just be honest with residents," Geller said. "He needs to make clear to residents the choices and consequences they will have to choose between.”

Geller added that the option of a referendum to determine taxpayers’ positions on budgets and additional spending is not as extreme as it sounds.

“We’ve been doing it for years with the school budget," he said. "Why should the school budgets be subject to approval at the ballot while other budgets continue to spiral out of control without any referendum or resident approval at all?”

Other ideas include the introduction of a professional manager.

Although Geller said he is lucky to have choices rather than being forced to make decisions just to survive, he also believes that improved management, better financial decisions and long-term planning will mean better options. This would be better for residents at every level who are currently having to move from their homes and the community they love, he said.

“I understand that I am one of the lucky group that are able to make decisions about my financial priorities, and that I am choosing to maintain our preferred retirement lifestyle over putting the money into property taxes and expenses," Geller said. "But those decisions are also the result of continuing poor financial decisions and mismanagement by our town and that’s a shame. I wanted to stay in my house and I continue to care about this town.”

Reality Check September 19, 2012 at 07:30 PM
Good points Ross, but I do not need a reality check, we just may differ on a few points. Those are my opinions and we all know what can be said about opinions. One thing is certain, the Belmont team has a great chance here to make a difference with the next budget. Let not forget about the insane school taxes. As like you, I hope for the best for Harrison. I am no means a political hack, merely a resident who hopes this administartion can come up with better ideas than TAG SALES to balance the budget.
Ross Revira September 19, 2012 at 07:46 PM
The school taxes are a huge problem but the 2% tax levy increase cap will give the voters a fighting chance in controlling spending. For the last couple of years the school board has been able to keep increases small by using the surplus to cover the shortfall. That surplus will be gone in a couple of years so tough choices will have to be made by the board to stay within the cap. With existing employee contracts (80% of school budget is employee compensation) there is no way to stay under the cap without significant cuts in compensation and/or the amount of employees. REMEMBER it will take a 60% affirmative vote to pass a budget that exceeds the cap. There is hope to slay the dragon.
Gee September 20, 2012 at 01:59 PM
If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but it seems to me that those who live in the more affluent areas of Harrison also pay the highest amount of taxes which benefit all residents. What is that Harrison @ Halstead would like to see? Your taxes have already increased due to the losses of corporations from Platinum Mile. Would it make you happy to see all the beautiful homes and property in the trails, as you define them, torn down and replaced with big apartment complexes, smaller houses, businesses? Start paying even higher real estate and school taxes as your neighboring towns do? BTW... lots of people would give anything to live in Harrison... be it Brentwood, Silver Lake, or Franklin Park. There is NO PART of Harrison, NY that is ghetto and never will be. Your argument blaming the mess on on the other side of the tracks is just plain senseless. Perhaps you, your parents, your children, your grandchildren have all been afforded the luxury and education of the one of the top school districts in the county, even in the US. That's what the residents need to decide as a whole.
Donna September 22, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Mr. Geller, who is mentioned in the article, is one of the prime reasons why our school taxes are so high. He pushed and shoved for school budgets to pass, establishing the Friends of Harrison Schools, who would nominate residents for school board positions and then raise the money for him/her to campaign with. This pretty much excluded anyone else from winning a school board position, hence why we rarely have a contested school board election today. I find it very hypocritical of him to have a problem with town taxes when our school taxes make up over 50 percent of our tax bill. A town manager would be the worse thing for Harrison. What ends up happening is the town board only hears what the town manager wants them to hear, hence their being out of touch with what really goes on. No matter how bad someone thinks a town board is, I'd take our town board being involved in even the most mundane issues of our town.
Rich S. September 22, 2012 at 03:32 PM
Pensions are the real deal breaker. But this isn't a problem limited to Harrison. Rhode Island and California have been hit hard recently with their underfunded pension obligations. Until guaranteed pensions go away, we're dead in the water. I intend to leave Harrison as soon as I can. Just can't afford it. It's either fund my 401k or work til I die which is probably what I'll end up doing.


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