The town board gave itself authority Tuesday to exceed, if necessary, a state limit on property tax increases in next year’s budget.
In a 5-0 vote, the board chose to ignore what Supervisor Lee V.A. Roberts called Albany’s “interference from afar” in the management of Bedford’s fiscal affairs. “This board will be diligent in our efforts to meet a 2 percent cap [on increases in the property-tax levy],” she promised.
That theoretical ceiling on tax hikes brought out a succession of speakers, 15 in all, for a public hearing on a proposed local law overriding tax-cap restrictions. The board’s later unanimity contrasted with sharp divisions evident in the audience of some 80 residents, who crowded town hall for the protracted hearing.
Scheduled to last a half hour, the hearing ran 2 ½ times that as speakers alternately embraced the curb, calling it a necessary check on runaway local spending, and rejected Albany’s incursion into traditional home-rule prerogatives, suggesting it could be unconstitutional.
Luke Vander Linden, who is on the Republican/Conservative line, said he opposes the proposed override authority suggests instead a “fresh look” at the 2012 budget. He said his own telephone survey of Bedford residents found 74 percent of the respondents similarly were against granting board members the power to hike taxes by more than 2 percent.
Acknowledging the financial strains of recent years, including declines in alternative revenue sources and increases in state-mandated local spending, Vander Linden noted that neither neighboring Somers or Lewisboro planned to “bust the tax cap.” Moreover, he asserted, “Public service is not meant to be easy.”
But Harry L. Mozian Jr. of Katonah wanted simply to know, “What idiot came up with this [tax cap] idea?”
Enacted in June by the state legislature, the tax cap had been pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as a way to rein in “out-of-control” municipal spending. "This is going to end the madness, finally, once and for all," he said later as he signed it into law. But an opt-out provision allows any town or village with a five-member governing board to exceed the cap. It requires a public hearing and only three affirmative votes to enact a local law allowing levies that exceed the cap’s 2 percent limit.
Steven H. Rice of Bedford Village, in pressing the board to vote for the override, insisted, “The people of this state have got to stand up and take notice that this can’t continue.” He urged local officials to test the constitutionality of Albany’s action and suggested enlisting some of Bedford’s prominent lawyers. Rice called for a pro bono effort to remove state lawmakers from a seat at the town’s budget-making table.
By a clear margin, however, more speakers agreed with the sentiments expressed by Carol Smith of Katonah, a 30-year resident of the town who has watched the inexorable rise in her annual tax bill. “I can’t live in this town I love if this continues.”
In giving themselves permission to exceed Albany’s limits, board members emphasized the standby nature of that power. “Adopting [the local law] doesn’t mean we can’t stay within the 2 percent,” Councilman Chris Burdick said. With some budget figures likely to be available only at the eleventh hour before adoption, he said it would be “fiscally irresponsible” not to override the state limit. “It just gives us the flexibility,” he said, invoking a word that would be cited by virtually every member of the board.
The board had other words—cynical, gimmick, shell game—to describe the tax cap. Deputy Supervisor Peter Chrysoss decried the legislators’ “hubris” and, reflecting on some recent fiscal foibles, said, “These same people are now telling us to be more responsible. This is nothing but a shell game.”
Assemblyman Robert Castelli, on hand to make a legislative report, acknowledged some of the tax cap’s difficulties but said, “We believed it was absolutely imperative.” He said the cap was meant to work with other fiscal reforms, including a moratorium on unfunded state mandates and their eventual repeal.
In theory, the cap restricts any local government’s yearly increase in the property levy to 2 percent growth over the previous year’s or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. Cuomo and other state officials—legislators and bureaucrats alike—have promised the law would sharply restrict spending by local government, including counties, towns, villages and cities, fire and school districts.