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Cuomo urges strategy at county level to ease tax burden

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo threw up his hands Tuesday and said he has done “everything I can” to reduce high property taxes across New York State.

Now, Cuomo said, it is up to voters.

Cuomo, in his third and fourth stops this week around the state to give his annual State of the State speech, proposed a plan that would put the onus on county executives or county managers to call together all officials from their counties to devise ways to share government services to cut expenses.

The plans would then be put before voters in countywide referendums.

“Unless citizens get into the game, it’s not going to happen,’’ Cuomo said of property tax growth, which has slowed since the state imposed a cap on annual property tax levy increases for local governments, including school districts.

The new plan, however, excludes school districts, which are the drivers of the largest property tax bills received each year by New York residents.

A spokesman for Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said the Democrat has not yet seen the details of the plan by the Democratic governor.

“But (he) does note that Erie County government is already lean and has one of the lowest tax rates” in New York state, the spokesman wrote in an email response.

Cuomo has talked about what he believes are too many layers of government since his days as state attorney general. Though he once put the number at 10,000, many of those include such entities as special water, sewer and lighting districts that were approved to finance infrastructure projects, often in specific areas of a city, town or village.

Cuomo made no mention of what localities have been pressing Albany to address for years: the rising number of unfunded services mandated by the state but paid for by local governments.

He has been criticized most recently for vetoing a bill in December, which passed the Legislature unanimously in June, to have the state pay for the costs of mandated legal services counties must provide for poor people accused of crimes.

“You pay high taxes, don’t be mad at me,’’ Cuomo said Tuesday morning at the State University of New York at Purchase in Westchester County, the site of the third State of the State address for 2017.

Cuomo said the average New Yorker pays 2.5 times more in local property taxes than in state income taxes. It was a theme he repeated at a Long Island speech in the afternoon.

Cuomo’s proposal calls for county executives to submit cost-saving plans to county legislators by Aug. 1. Lawmakers will have 45 days to act and if they do nothing the plan goes before voters this fall. If the plan is rejected, a new plan for consolidation or shared services must be devised again in 2018 and go through the same approval or rejection process.

Cuomo floated his government savings idea just days before he is to present his budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

Mark LaVigne, deputy director at the New York State Association of Counties, noted Cuomo’s plan is to give voters more of a say about local spending. “If that’s the starting point, we believe there should be a referendum on whether county taxpayers should be funding state programs and services to the tune of more than $12 million a year,’’ he said.

LaVigne added nine major state-mandated programs already eat up more than 99 percent of the county property taxes collected statewide.

Peter Baynes, executive director of the New York Conference of Mayors, called the Cuomo plan unworkable.

“Ignoring school taxes and imposing a new state mandate is no way to tackle New York’s property tax problem,’’ he said. “The last thing New York needs is a mandate from Albany that would circumvent local democracy via a county-determined, all-or-nothing referendum.''

The New York State Association of Towns said Cuomo’s plan comes as the state has failed to study the effects of its property tax program okayed in 2011 or a more recent tax freeze program that includes rebate checks for eligible residents. Gerry Geist, the group’s executive director, said state aid to two key funding pots has failed to keep up with inflation.

“We wouldn’t have any issues if the state would just address state mandates,’’ he said.

Cuomo is traveling the state this week giving the annual address instead of the century-long tradition of governors addressing a joint session of the Legislature in Albany.

Cuomo pulled out a 1932 quote from then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which Roosevelt said that increases in real estate taxes was “wholly” due to localities and not the state.

“I have tried everything on property taxes,’’ Cuomo said Tuesday. He said local governments “rarely” work together to consolidate or share services on anything from combining human services departments or sharing equipment like road grading machines.

“They would rather keep to themselves,’’ Cuomo said of the entities.

“The opposition to this is going to be fierce because it’s going to be the entire political class that’s going to oppose it,’’ Cuomo said.

As he called on localities to save money, Cuomo proposed a $200 million “legacy” project to link the state with a 750-mile pedestrian trail that he says will benefit everything from tourism to home values.

The Empire State Trail would be built in phases and would include some 350 miles of new trails to connect to existing trails to be used for hiking, biking and other non-motorized activities. It would run north/south from New York City to the Adirondacks and east/west from Albany to Buffalo. It would link to many trails already built in areas of the state.

“I think it’s a winner,’’ Cuomo said.

Like his two speeches Monday in Buffalo and Manhattan, his Tuesday speeches were largely filled with glowing rhetoric about his own accomplishments the past six years as governor.

He also used the Westchester address to comment on what he calls a growing “anger” in America.

Without mentioning President-elect Donald J. Trump by name, Cuomo again, as he did in Manhattan Monday, said New York state would be a blocking force to policies that would go against the state’s “progressive” history.

It was a theme largely untouched in his Buffalo speech. In Manhattan, he used the word “progressive” nine separate times. In his Buffalo speech, the word “progressive” was not uttered.

Cuomo will finish up the State of the State speeches on Wednesday, with stops in Albany and Syracuse.

The details will come when he unveils his 2017-18 spending plan sometime in the next week, a budget that, in total, will top out at more than $150 billion.

In a sign that the heroin and opioid addiction crisis still hits New York communities, Cuomo used another State of the State to propose additional measures to address the problem, including expanding outpatient treatment, increasing criminal drug penalties for the sale of fentanyl analogs, which are forms of especially potent synthetic opioids, and expanding the number of health care providers able to prescribe a drug to treat addicts.

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