Hole in the Cap

Right now, the much-ballyhooed New York property tax cap appears to be much ado about very little. Under the terms of a bill passed last week, which the governor is expected to sign shortly, tax increases would be held to 2 percent annually or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. But the cap has a significant hole in it, particularly where local government is concerned.
    In order to go past the 2-percent limit, three-fifths of the deciding body for a particular budget would have to agree to break the cap. For school districts, this means getting 60 percent of voters to approve it in a referendum. So far, so good. However, for other forms of government, approval for higher tax levies would come from its elected representatives alone.
    Eastern Long Island’s towns and villages, like most of the smaller municipalities across New York, are governed by five-member boards. This means that it would take only a three-person majority to reach 60 percent and exceed the limit. As such, the bill is patently unfair, placing greater restraints on schools while essentially allowing cities (although not New York), counties, towns, villages, and special taxing districts to continue business as usual.
    If Albany really intended to pass a meaningful bill with adequate restraint on the growth of government, this is an embarrassing loophole. For towns and villages from Niagara to East Hampton, the number of yes votes required to approve an annual spending plan is the same as would be necessary to bust the cap.
    It is, frankly, stunning that lawmakers, many of whom came to their current posts with small-town government experience, could have missed this important detail — unless they didn’t miss it and the escape valve was intentional. Requiring a four-member supermajority for municipalities to exceed the tax cap might have been an option.
    If Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is serious about protecting taxpayers from runaway local government and school spending, he should not have signed this bill.