By Martha E. Conway
(Town of Sullivan, NY – Oct. 3, 2012) Sullivan residents vehemently opposed a proposed local law to override the state-mandated 2-percent tax cap at a public hearing Oct. 3. Some likened it to ‘writing the town a blank check” to do with as they please.
At a public informational meeting on reassessment held with lakefront property owners Sept. 17, Supervisor John M. Becker announced the Sullivan Town Council would be likely be voting to override the tax cap due to the costs of the imminent Bridgeport Sewer District construction.
Becker opened the public hearing Oct. 3 by saying the town board would not normally consider overriding the tax cap.
“But [because of the BSD project], the levy will exceed the levy limit,” Becker said, “but the cost only affects the people in the Bridgeport Sewer District.”
The state’s formula for calculating the cap requires villages, towns and counties to include most special district costs, despite the fact they are paid for by those within the district and have no impact on the rest of the community.
At that Sept. 17 meeting, Becker presented data showing a steady decline in the town’s tax rate since 2006.
“When I took office, the tax rate was $3.86 per $1,000 of assessed value,” Becker said Sept. 17, adding that it is $3.14 this year. “At the county, we’ve tapped into the fund balance to stay below the 2-percent tax cap, but at the town, we’re going to have to override it. If it weren’t for the Bridgeport Sewer District, we weren’t going to override it, but we are forced to do it because of the tax charged to that district.”
Members of the public were outspoken in their opposition.
A Lestina Beach Road resident said his taxes have risen 71 percent in the past 10 years; he said he was against the override.
“Officials are either unable or unwilling to control spending,” he said.
A Centner Road North resident said there have been numerous sewer backups there the past 25 years and didn’t feel the roads were well-cared for.
A Barrett Lane resident said she was tired of the town shoving taxes on her again and again.
An Bridgeport resident said he doesn’t have assurances that the town isn’t going to raise his property taxes through the revaluation and also was against the override.
A Lucas Road resident said people are going to be hurt when the state eliminates the STAR exemption program.
Waterbury Road resident Art Lelio said he is in favor of the override, since the increase affected only BSD residents who will benefit from the project.
Kerry Paice of North Shore Drive, another Lestina Beach Road resident and another Barrett Lane resident all said they were against it.
A Hill Street, Lakeport, resident said she is a senior citizen living on Social Security whose small annual increases are nothing comparable to what the town is proposing to do to property taxes.
A Lacey Circle resident said he didn’t understand the numbers and how they work to have a solid position one way or the other.
An Oneida Lake Avenue resident said his taxes have doubled since moving there in 2004.
Bridgeport resident Kerry Ranger said the burden lies most with the BSD residents.
“Because of the sewer tax plus the reval, they are under the gun,” Ranger said. “I say you hold off on revaluations and bring people up to 85 percent who are not to even it out.”
One speaker accused Councilman David Miner of paying less than others in his area while having more square footage.
Rising property taxes would hurt merchants, also, someone else offered.
“We did not override the tax cap last year, and I guarantee we would not be doing it this year if it weren’t for the Bridgeport Sewer District,” Becker said after the public hearing was closed at 7:20 p.m. “The 2-percent tax cap has been a half-baked idea from the outset.”
Comptroller Beth Ellis said the people in the Bridgeport Sewer District are the only ones who will see an increase in taxes as a result of the override.
Revaluation questions overtake meeting
“Some people in the village are paying 125 percent of their assessed value, and some people are paying 67 percent,” Becker said in response to questions about why the town wants to revaluate now. “The object is to get everyone to 100 percent.”
Becker said Sept. 17 that, when he was elected, he heard from a lot of people who were unhappy with assessments.
“So we got off the [state annual revaluation] program,” Becker said. “Now that I understand how things work, I understand why this is the only fair way to make sure everyone pays their share”
According to Becker, at its low, the town’s equalization rate dropped to 78 percent; he said the Town Council felt it would eventually level off and come back up due to the poor economy. The equalization rate in Sullivan has now leveled off at 85 percent, he said.
As a result of the lower equalization rate, the town receives only 85 percent of the sales tax revenue it is entitled to, as distribution is based on taxable assessed value.
“We think it is a good time to do this,” Becker said, adding that the town board has been put in the awkward position of trying to navigate a system that is out of its control. “We wanted to do the sewers two years ago, but we were held up, and now they fell together.”
In other business
* A motion was made by Deputy Supervisor William Cole to enact a moratorium on natural gas exploration and extraction after continued pleading by natural gas drilling opponents; the motion died on the floor for lack of a second.
Donna Muhs-McCarten asked for a one-year moratorium against [hydraulic fracturing] to allow the town time to update its zoning laws.
“This is not for or against,” Muhs-McCarten insisted. “But right now, all someone needs to do this is a variance.”
Cole asked whether drilling opponents felt the action was really necessary after the action of the state to delay permitting until a health impact assessment can be performed. Becker said Binghamton’s moratorium had been thrown out.
“You cannot stay neutral on this issue,” said Cheryl Cary. “The state can change its mind at any time.”
* Waterbury Road resident Art Lelio asked if the town’s work on amending its quality of life ordinance continues. Councilman Tom Kopp said he and town Fire Inspector Bill Pindle are meeting to discuss possible approaches to resolving the issues raised.
“We’re working on it still,” Becker said. “It’s hard to referee disputes between neighbors.”
Becker reminded those in attendance that the town’s meetings can be viewed in their entirety on PAC 99, Madison County’s public access television channel on the Time Warner Cable system.
Martha E. Conway is vice president of M3P Media, LLC, and publisher of the Madison County Courier. She can be reached at 315.813.0124 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/marthaeconway or Facebook at facebook.com/meconway