Pattern for Progress Report Cites Factors For Rockland’s ‘Crushing’ Tax Burden
John Jordan | October 2016
PEARL RIVER—A report commissioned by the Rockland Business Association and authored by Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress blames a myriad of issues, including public service salaries, for Rockland County’s high tax burden.
The Newburgh-based research and policy organization in a report entitled “A Crushing Burden: Why is Rockland County So Heavily Taxed?” blames high public sector salaries as well as high salaries for teachers and school administrators, as well as the county’s location near New York City as chief contributing factors.
Real estate website Zillow ranks Rockland County’s property taxes as second highest in the nation, according to 2013 figures. Rockland’s median tax bill of $10,550 was second highest in the nation, bested only by neighboring Westchester County’s property tax bill of $13,842.
“An examination of property taxes in Rockland County reveals one simple fact: There is no single driver behind the county’s high taxes. Instead it is a mixture of factors, some that are related to geographic location, some that have to do with the costs associated with New York State as a whole and some that are particular to Rockland County and indeed to particular locations—towns, villages and school districts—within Rockland County,” the report stated.
Chief among local contributors to the high tax burden are: the high level of public employee compensation in local police departments and in school districts relative to median household income in the general population; onerous costs incurred by a large school district (North Rockland), its component towns (Haverstraw and Stony Point), and to some extent the county following a tax certiorari case won by the utility Mirant in 2007. Other factors include the heavy Rockland County debt resulting from the county budget deficit crisis that came to a head in 2011-2012; demographic and economic shifts that led to a dramatic increase in poverty rates and stagnating median household incomes and the emergence of one town, Ramapo, as the fastest growing town in Rockland by far—it accounted for 58 percent of Rockland’s growth from 1970 to 2020—and as a location where tax exemptions for religious purposes, including religious schools, have skyrocketed.
Specifically, the report noted that a significant contributor to the high tax burden are the “extraordinarily high salaries” of large numbers of public sector workers as well as numerous local town police departments, educators and school administrators in Rockland County.
“When total compensation exceeds $120,000 to $200,000 per year for individual public employees, we are no longer talking about members of the middle class seeking to earn a living wage,” stated Jonathan Drapkin, president and CEO of Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress. “The issue of affordability comes quickly to the fore because these individual salaries can be very much out of alignment with the $85,808 average income of an entire Rockland County household, and as such are a strong contributing factor to these high taxes.”
The Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress issued a number of recommendations to begin the process of the county taking control of its escalating tax burden: honor the state imposed tax cap and consider local versions of the tax cap; look to the schools for reform, such as considering early retirement incentives, passage of a school transportation relief act to offset the cost to taxpayers when non-public students outnumber those attending public school within a given district, explore more sharing of services to reduce costs; press for an examination of government costs at all levels; push for property tax exemption reform; and relief through state payments on state-owned properties; pursue collection of delinquent taxes and add ratables.
Other recommendations in the report were: trade tax breaks for streamlined approval process and shovel-ready sites; seek early retirement incentives at other levels of government; consider five year expenditure planning, multi-year budgeting and proactive funding; step up the pressure on mandate reform and eliminate the Triborough Amendment of the Public Employees Fair Employment Act that guarantees an automatic salary increase and the continuation of current benefit levels when negotiations for a new contract fail. The report also recommended that organizations, such as the RBA, continue to work to provide information to the general public and to encourage participation in local government affairs.
“This document is intended as an instrument to guide the people of Rockland through a self-examination that could result in Rockland achieving a level of sustainability not currently evident in its future,” RBA President and CEO Al Samuels said of the Pattern report in a story published in the Journal News. “What we’re saying is that the people of Rockland have a decision to make. We have the best services, education, law enforcement, but, … if you can’t afford what you’re being charged for it, then you have to take a hard look at what’s provided and whether it needs to be adjusted. This isn’t finger pointing, but it is about what these things are costing us.”
Drapkin noted at the end of his comments in the report, “There seem to be two choices for Rockland residents when it comes this issue. Either they believe they are getting their money’s worth and therefore should stop raising it as an issue, or resolve to enter into a discussion that they want the level of taxes changed, recognize that it won’t be easy, and commit to supporting those that attempt to do so.”
He continued, “A report such as this does not seek to make enemies, though some may be made, and it does not seek to make friends. Both we and the RBA recognize this. We see our job as lending fact and context to a dialogue that is very much present in Rockland. Our findings and recommendations are not the end of the dialogue, they are a beginning.”