If the hint from the administration of Erie County Executive Chris Collins that a property tax hike may be in the offing for 2009 is just a trail balloon, it's one that ought to be popped. Count us among the first on the scene with a pin.
This is absolutely the worst time to pile another tax on county residents already suffering under nation-leading tax burdens and trying to deal with a national economic recession and market meltdown that is sapping both their wallets and their retirement funds. If county leaders want to grow Erie County, they shouldn't start by cutting it off at the knees. So far Collins has rightly kept his focus on governmental efficiency and controlling non-mandated spending, and recently told his department heads to review all discretionary spending; that approach, essential to taxpayers in this economy, is the better one.
If we're lucky, the hints are indeed just a trial balloon -- an idea that, if it turns out to be highly unpopular, can be abandoned as quickly as it arose. The balloon is shot down. Its string is attached to no one. Nobody takes the blame.
The drifting balloon in this case is a combination of puzzle pieces, including a delay in the county budget office's report on its anticipated revenues for next year and statements from that office that a recent run of extra revenue from sales taxes may be over.
That may be true, as the American recession goes global and pulls down the Canadian dollar, possibly ending a sales-tax windfall from cross-border shopping while at the same time depressing domestic retail activity. Everyone's hurting. And to be fair, the county has legal room to increase taxes and Collins has to deal with a control board that has rejected four-year plans in part because of disagreement on revenue estimates.
But possible doesn't mean advisable, and a tax hike will just increase business and population flight from this county and this state. As Collins said of County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz on another matter recently, penny-wise and dollar-foolish.
Collins and his budget people still have a chance to dodge responsibility for any ill-advised tax hike by seeing to it that, when their 2009 budget proposal is rolled out Monday, it doesn't include one. At a time when fuel prices are soaring, stock prices are tumbling and the whole economy is on the brink of a meltdown, higher taxes in a part of the world that already suffers from abnormally high rates is not a good idea.
It will not be simple to avoid a tax hike -- for the same reasons mentioned above. Costs are up and the ability of people to do for themselves will be reduced. The call upon government, including county government, to keep up with costs and handle increased demand for public social services will be stressful indeed.
But property taxes are a major impediment to economic activity and growth in Erie County and across New York. They are higher here than in most other places, and they put a burden on many homeowners and small businesses that are expected to pay taxes based on the appraised value of their properties, not their current financial health and ability to pay.
Collins came to office as a businessman. To react to a financial slowdown by raising prices, especially when customers could barely afford to pay the old prices, is not sound business strategy.