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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Zombies In The Revenue Stream

There are zombies here. Check your property tax bill. Some of those taxing units are dead districts walking. We can get in front of it and manage it, or sit back and eventually watch bankers and brokers and corporations tear at the carcasses. 

 

In 2011, the last year with finalized figures, government units within Nassau County government units collected $5.85 billion in real property taxes. The biggest chunk of this went to school districts ($4.16 billion), followed by the county ($985 million) and the towns, villages and cities ($702 million). Almost uniquely among New York districts and municipalities, most of the overall revenue stream to the state’s public school system is made up of local property taxes (the county, for example, expects to get only 29 percent of its revenues from property taxes in 2013).

 

Stagnant household incomes make this situation unsustainable for any level of government. This is especially true for school districts and for counties, for which “local control” is mostly an illusion. New York State owns the schools and the counties, and most of their functions involve implementing laws and policies made in Albany. Schools can’t decide not to teach math, and the county can’t decide not to pull out of public health enforcement, provision of critical social services or the prosecution of crimes. 

 

Folly by the state and by many local officials has closed off even reasonable options to raise revenues in time of increased fixed expenses.

 

The house market has destabilized to a degree that was supposed to have been impossible. Extreme efforts to boost home ownership as a civic duty and the best way to build wealth and extract cash (as if reinflating the housing bubble is a good thing) aren’t really helping. National delinquency rates and homes in foreclosure both remain at three times the typical pre-crash level, and are accelerating across significant swaths of Long Island. The 18 million foreclosed Americans and tens of millions of underemployed Americans aren’t rushing out to buy homes.

 

Since last year, the Blackstone Group, the real estate equity fund giant, has invested $3.5 billion to buy 20,000 single-family homes as rental units and is now sinking in another $2.1 billion. America Homes 4 Rent out of Malibu has bought 10,000 homes with the intention of renting. They are targeting people who used to own homes. This is what’s causing the blips in housing inventories and prices. The money is talking. It is saying, “Renting Is the New Owning.” Long Island is saying, “We Are Built for 1960.”

 

Waiting for the market to reinflate isn’t going to cut it. 

 

Changes in assessed valuation across the county are wildly inconsistent. Some people reading this are barely aware of changes in their home’s assessed valuation. Others are acutely aware that theirs have changed 20, 25, 30 percent or more. Inconsistencies translate into irrational property tax bills. 

 

The local property tax system wasn’t built to move like this. It can’t react fast enough in its present form. There are now vulnerabilities throughout the system, and we are losing the ability to control our fiscal affairs. The stock market, now bobbing around irrational record levels, affects pension payments and our local budgets. Energy costs affect our local budgets. Hurricanes. Cyprus. Everything. And there is no more headroom.

 

There are already New York counties upstate where tax delinquency is a major problem. 

 

We are locking our most important public functions into permanent retrenchment. Worse, at a time when more Long Island families than ever are financially vulnerable, we are locking them into rising costs and more vulnerability.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net