Friday, November 03, 2006

Share the Wealth?

This year’s contests for election to the GreeneLand legislature have been marked by an unusual feature: On an issue of substance, a line of division exists—not a clear line, but a line—between the Republican and the Democratic candidates. This one issue is how the county government should handle coming gains, big gains, in revenue collected from sales tax payments. Democratic candidates generally support a particular scheme for managing this ‘surplus’ while the Republicans either oppose that scheme or avoid the subject.

Lines of inter-party cleavage on matters of policy, at the county level, are rare in GreeneLand. The people who are identified on the ballot as Republican and Democratic (and/or Conservative, Working Families, or Independence) nominees for election from the county’s nine legislative districts do not belong to cohesive teams. They did not get on the ballot by being endorsed at county-wide conventions after pledging allegiance to platforms adopted by party regulars. Their paths to candidacy were localized process and personal. Candidates who share a party label do not necessarily agree on their principles or priorities or programs. On this occasion, however, on the subject of sales tax revenue disbursement, we do have a substantial inter-party contrast in views.

The issue is timely. With the recent arrival and rapid growth of a Home Depot branch, and with the imminent openings of a Lowes home improvement center and a giant WalMart, GreeneLand will soon generate a boom in retail sales and, consequently, in sales tax payments. Those payments will go into county government coffers. In relation to anticipated costs of current county operations, they will provide a kind of surplus. So: what should be done with the increased revenue? One answer has found favor with current Democratic candidates for seats in the county legislature. It is that some of the windfall be passed along to town and village councils. The main author and promoter of this proposal is Forest Cotten, who is a Catskill Village trustee and is one of the Democratic candidates for election to the county legislature. Supported unanimously by his fellow Village trustees, Mr Cotten not only has touted the general idea of sales tax revenue-sharing (or STRS), but also has championed a specific application formula. The idea and the formula have found much favor with towns and village council members—Republicans as well as Democrats—all over GreeneLand. That consensus is remarkable. Governors of municipalities might readily agree on the merit of being entitled to get new money from the county, while disagreeing about how the bounty ought to be apportioned. Instead, substantial municipal support has been given to an STRS scheme whose key terms are as follows:

(1) Entitlement. Re-allocation of some sales tax revenue shall come into play when a given year’s revenue exceeds the previous year’s take by more than 5 per cent. Of any ‘surplus’ above that figure, 20 per cent remains in county coffers, with the remainder being apportioned to town and village treasuries. Thus, if county revenues from sales tax come to $10 million in Year I and rise by 10 per cent in Year II, then half of the gain ($1 million) stays in the county treasury (that’s $500,000) and so does 20% of the remainder (another $100,000). That leaves $400,000 to be allocated to municipalities. By the same token, if year III’s revenue exceeds year II’s by 10%, the new total is $12,100,000, and the gain is $1.1 million. Of that additional revenue, the county keeps half ($550,000) plus 20% of the remainder (another $110,000, and the municipalities get what’s left (80% of $550,000, or $410,000). (2) Apportionment. For deciding the respective shares of municipalities, 75 per cent would be allocated according to populations, and 25 per cent according to equalized assessment value. The towns’ shares would be calculated exclusive of their villages (in Catskill, Hunter, Cox, Athens).

RECOMMENDATION Now, we at Seeing Greene have not made up our collective mind about the merit of that STRS scheme. We do feel sure that the proposal deserves an earnest, thorough hearing by the county’s legislators. It deserves a solid hearing because it would provide the right occasion for careful thought about alternative uses of the coming windfall and about what lies ahead for the county. (In the latter respect, it is difficult to over-state the importance of the looming, unavoidable obligation to build, at immense expense, a new jail. Meeting that unavoidable budget-busting obligation in Ulster County proved to be, in short, ruinous). But a proper hearing by GreeneLand’s legislators is just what STRS has not received. Sponsors of the scheme tried to make a presentation, only to be told that they needed to get endorsements from a majority of local councils. They did so, only to be stonewalled again. Generally favored by incumbent county legislators has been a “wait and see” outlook—with no hint about what event or information awaits sighting.. Experience indicates, then, that the county legislature will give serious consideration to sharing its coming windfall with local councils only if it undergoes a change of composition. Some members need to be replaced. Which brings us to this Tuesday’s election. We are not in position to recommend candidates all over the county. There are too many issues, too many questions of character and experience. Nevertheless, we venture to voice the following suggestions: (1) Catskillians should vote for Mr Cotten. Adding him to the legislature is the single most important assurance that the STRS scheme will be studied. He is one of seven candidates for four seats. His two Democratic running mates, Ron Dombrowski and Robin Depuy, also support STRS. Voters do not need to stay with one party ‘line’ or another. (2) In Athens, candidate Andrea Smallwood has endorsed STRS, while the incumbent, Ray Brooks, has joined in the stonewalling. And Ms Smallwood is in other respects richly qualified for the office of county legislator. (3) In Cairo, with two seats to filled, voters could wisely retain one of the incumbents—veteran Bill Lawrence, who is likely to become the legislature’s chairman—while ridding themselves of the other one. By virtue of a manifest addiction to fatuous remarks, Michael Camadine seems to be well qualified for retirement. He has been “standing up for principle,” he tells the news media on behalf of his bid for re-election, without naming the principle. The notion that a big boost in sales tax revenue lies ahead, says he, is illusory; “until no one is paying real property taxes, there is no extra money.” Anyhow, the Democrats are touting sales tax revenue-sharing because they don’t have any other issues—as if his people are knee deep in issues and policies (and, surely, principles). Ah yes, those devilish GreeneLand Democrats. Do they have only two seats in the county legislature, few seats in local councils, few candidates, few members, bare cupboards, minimal co-ordination? Don’t be fooled, says this avid hallucinatory: “We have seen [here in the Greene County Democratic Party] the rise of the strong party boss, who speaks for the his party, tells them their positions, and models his organization on the successful Albany machine.”

P.S. “A tax cut is really one of the anecdotes to coming out of an economic illness.” --George W. Bush, 9/18/2000

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dick, several thoughts abound on your recent installment:

First off, I am glad to hear that you are calling this tax-sharing plan a "scheme," for that is exactly what it is.

Secondly, I am also glad to see that you openly acknowledge the "loomin" impendence of a new jail, which, as you are correct, has caused an absolute financial mess in Ulster County and we certainly do not want to repeat their mistakes.

Next, I am disappointed that you did not contact me, a Catskill Village Board member for clarification on the "unanimous" support given to Mr. Cotten & his tax-sharing, ahem, scheme. For it was I that requested the Catskill Village Board stipulate in its support that any revenue derived from this scheme be applied directly to lowering the property taxes in the Village of Catskill.

This is noteworthy because I have not heard ANY other Town or Village official from the other municipalities request the same of their boards. Further, the Catskill Village Board did support the scheme but with the above noted stipulation included.

Even Mr. Cotten himself has not come forward on his own to suggest that the "surplus" revenue be dedicated specifically to lower property taxes. This brings about a couple other points:

A) For the last seveal years the Republican controlled Greene County Legislature has reduced property taxes (3% last year) and has announced a further reduction for the coming year (10%). Other than in the Village of Catskill, there is no guarantee that Town & Village boards across the County will do the same. The Greene County Legislature has, however, a proven record of reducing taxes.

B) With regard to the "surplus" revenue generated from the impending Walmart & Lowes and the already built Home Depot, at least 50% of this "surplus" revenue is actually "replacement" revenue from that which was lost by the closing of the Ames stores in Catskill and Greenville. Therefore, the numbers Mr. Cotten has been chauferring around (hopefully without a driver paid by state taxpayers, sorry-had to through that one in) are actually somewhat skewered due to this. While it appears that a great windfall is upon us, the windfall is not as great when you factor in what we have been missing for the last few years.

C) As for the "stonewalling" of the legislature to decide on the scheme, ahem, plan-it's only been 3 weeks since its submission, what is the rush? Is this merely a politicial push because election day is only a few days away?

D) As for the majority Mr. Cotten has touted, the calculation, by his own admission at a public meeting of the Catskill Village Board, is that it is not a physical majority of the Towns and Villages, but yet a majority of the weighted vote used by the Legislature. This is also a skewered number as the weighted vote is based on population of Towns in the County-this does not take into consideration the Villages of the County. Although one could infer that since a Village is part of a Town it is counted, however, when the distribution of the money takes place (if the scheme is passed) it is distributed to both Towns & Villages & therefore for an actual majority of municipalities in the county to count, it should be a physical majority of Towns & Villages.

Lastly, the Greene County Legislature has steered this county in the right direction & we are on track to continue reduced property taxes and fiscal accountabiity. Where is the mandate to change this? Do we want to pay higher taxes? Do we want to take "surplus" money from one municipality and give is to another with no guarantee of how it is going to be spent? It's like taking a dollar out of one pocket & putting into another with a hole in it-maybe it'll stay in the pocket or maybe it'll fall through the hole.

The Republican members of the Greene County Legislature have a proven track record of fiscal responsibility. I strongly urge all the voters of the County and specifically those here in Catskill to vote to continue the trend of low property taxes. On Tuesday November 7, show your support of low property taxes by voting for Keith Valentine, Dorothy Prest, Karen Deyo and Gary Kistinger as well as the rest of the Republican candidates from around the County.

Thank you,

Angelo W. Amato
Taxpayer and Village of Catskill Trustee.