Thursday, October 2, 2008

...And Taxes

This opinion piece appeared in the Townsman, September 25 edition

It is September, and of course a property owner's fancy turns to school taxes. For those of you with little scholars in the house the anguish can be soothed by simple arithmetic taught us long ago when our parent's wrote checks to the tax collector: divide the school tax amount by one hundred and eighty school days (180) and you will probably come out to somewhere between $8.00 and $20.00 per day. This is not an unreasonable expense to lavish on the future generation, especially when you consider the debt we are gifting it. The deal gets a lot better if you have two or more budding Einsteins, because schools charge by the roof and not by the number of children under it. When your little Johnny and Susie get on the bus it can be for as little as $4.00 to $8.00 a pop. Makes you sometimes wish you had had a tribe.

For elders, the term I prefer to "seniors" because it implies wisdom whereas "seniors" simply speaks to a successful accumulation of years, the school tax is tamped down with exemptions and can fall to amounts that provoke in younger property owners the temptation to lie seriously about their age. When people say 60 is the new 40 I think it's really forty year olds passing them selves off as sixty-five to get the senior exemption. I could have it backwards; maybe when you're only paying $300.00 in school tax, no matter how old you are, you look forty. You're not "old as you feel," you're "old as you are taxed."

Of course, the people who really get whacked are the second homeowners. Deprived of the right to vote in or vote out the school boards that establish the annual levy, they are also deprived of all exemptions, including STAR (School Tax Relief program). Fortunately for us their tax bills are mailed to far away places like Lodi and Riverside Parkway and we can't hear their gnashing of teeth.

This year, comparatively speaking, Woodstock got by lightly. The Onteora school district levy had the scantest increase (less than 1%), and the Kingston and Saugerties school districts, serving the eastern parts of Woodstock, saw only modest increases.

By now most of us are through the agony; we've hocked the jewelry, sold the extra car and shopped in Good Will for our autumn attire, and the school tax collector's September 30th deadline has been met. Happy with the remaining skin on our bones, we have nothing to dim our prospects until the… January town and county tax bill!

If you are still getting transfusions to replace the blood lost paying the school taxes, read no further.

It is very likely that town of Woodstock (and most likely many townships in the area) will see a significant percent tax increase, maybe even double digits.

Before reaching for the pitchfork, let's understand the situation facing our fiduciary officers -- another word for town board (yes, when not debating until midnight no-idling resolutions they watch our money).

There are two components to a budget, expense and revenue.

Expenses will see the expected increases, what with the escalating price of fuel and blacktop and other inflated costs, primarily labor. This by itself would not have a dramatic effect on the tax levy.

What's going to take the little pad out of our wallet is the plunge in non-property tax revenues, primarily mortgage tax and sales tax receipts. Combined, these revenues contributed $615,000 toward this year's $4,235,074 general fund budget, or 14%. When you add the $380,000 left over from the previous year's ('07) budget it covered almost 24% of the funds needed this year to sweep the streets, arrest the malefactors, inspect and assess the new construction and keep stray dogs off the street, among other municipal services.

This year mortgage tax revenue has plunged, sales tax revenue is wobbly, and although the previous town board left a generous rainy day fund in its wake, it will not by itself to make up for all the other lost revenues.

The Gang of Three on the town board is going to have a trip. This is the gang that diluted the town supervisor's authority to set the agenda, watered down his proposal to increase rental fees for use of the taxpayer funded buildings, and hissy fitted when he tried to adjust the schedule to increase paid parking revenues. Just imagine their eyes rolling when the 2009 budget is presented for their consideration.

Some predictions:

Finally, an answer to the question of who to blame for the meltdown of our nation's financial system; the Woodstock town supervisor! Look for these words: "Poor management." "Failure to take a holistic view." "When I worked in the corporate world…" Yes, finally an answer to why real estate tanked, banks collapsed and unemployment rates soared; it was the Woodstock town supervisor's fault!

Once that revelatory fact is thoroughly chewed and spat out and still no answer to how to address the problem of a big tax increase, then will come the discovery of the "previous administration's" total incompetence and misfeasance that led to today's debacle. At first we might be interested, like the first time we saw a cow chewing its cud, but it will get old quickly. The Gang of Three, dilatory but not stupid, will sense our boredom and move to the next step.

The next step will be to complain about the police department. If you think that Woodstock happens to have a nice police department you are in for a serious shock. By the time the Gang gets done you'll wonder why they don't fire them all. But they will fire no one. What they will do is cut the police car! That'll show 'em. The average property owner in Woodstock will save $5.00.

Anyway, the simple if unfanciful picture is this; we have a revenue shortfall. If we want to maintain the current level of municipal services it will require a hefty tax increase to make up for the lost revenues. (Warning: increasing fees for use of town buildings is off the table.) If we want to cut or curtail some municipal services, NOW is the time for you, taxpayer, to weigh in. If we want an autumn entertainment similar to mud wrestling then say nothing, tune into channel 23 and pass the popcorn.

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