Philipstown board hosts second informational meeting
By Michael Turton
It is an oft-quoted statistic: Westchester ranks number one among the highest taxed counties in the U.S. while Putnam County comes in at number ten. But don’t tell that to the residents of Continental Village who packed their local fire hall on Nov. 30 to continue a conversation with local and state officials about what they see as the disproportionately high taxes they pay to the Lakeland School District (part of which includes their small corner of Philipstown.) The meeting, a continuation of a session held on Oct.11, ( ) was hosted by the Town of Philipstown and chaired by its supervisor Richard Shea. Also in attendance were New York State Assemblywoman Sandy Galef; two representatives from New York State Senator Greg Ball’s office; John Wolham, a regional director with the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance; the entire Philipstown Town Board and Philipstown assessor Brian Kenney and Lakeland School District Superintendent of Education George Stone.
Taxation is seldom simple, but the Lakeland School District may be the definition of complicated; so much so that in presenting a concise but thorough summary of Lakeland’s tax dilemma, Wolham commented that it could well serve as the “poster child” for what’s wrong with the property tax system in New York State. He actually received a hearty round of applause from the audience, undoubtedly an uncommon experience for any “tax man,” and perhaps an indication of just how badly residents and officials need help in attempting to remedy the situation.
While the methods for determining who pays what in school taxes may be complex, what Continental Village residents care about most is the bottom line on their tax bill – especially when compared to residents in their neighboring communities and school districts. Continental Village residents who live within the Lakeland School District pay $52 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Residents in Philipstown whose taxes support the Haldane Central School District pay $32 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Philipstown residents who live in the Garrison Union Free School District pay of $18 per $1,000 of assessed property value. Just one of many complicating factors is the fact that Garrison has no high school. Garrison students can attend either Haldane High School in Cold Spring or James O’Neill High School In Highland falls and pay to do so.
The biggest complicating factor is that the Lakeland School District includes parts of six different towns in two different counties. The bulk of the district lies within the Westchester Towns of Cortlandt and Yorktown along with a tiny sliver of Somers. In Putnam County, parts of the Towns of Putnam Valley, Carmel and Philipstown lie within Lakeland School District. The rates of taxation and timing of reevaluating tax assessment vary widely from town to town. Philipstown, for example, bases assessed value on approximately 48 percent of actual property value. In Westchester’s towns that figure is closer to just 2 percent. Philipstown last reevaluated its assessment in 1996 while Putnam Valley reassesses annually. In Westchester, most towns have not reassessed in more than 30 years.
All for one and one for all?
Wolham pointed out that reassessment does not increase the amount of taxes collected but ensures that taxes are assessed fairy based on property value. When a property’s value is increased – such as by putting an addition on a house – but the property is not reassessed, the property in question becomes under taxed. The opposite is true of properties that have not been improved and continue to be assessed at the same rate as the improved house. The unimproved properties become over taxed. “If you have municipality where there has been no reassessment in many years – and if you find [improvements] not on the tax rolls previously – it could mean significant change.” Wolham said. “People in Philipstown won’t want to reassess unless all [the towns] do,” Kenney said. “We have a pretty good idea of all the garages and other improvements [in Philipstown.] I have a sneaking suspicion that Yorktown and Cortlandt are worth a lot more.”
It is very easy to get lost in the language, statistics and minutia of tax assessment, however one resident helped put things in perspective. “My sister and I both live in Lakeland School District. I live in Continental Village and she lives a half mile away in Cortlandt. I have a 1,400 square-feet house and pay $8,000 a year in taxes. She lives in an older, 4,000 square feet house and pays $3,000 a year,” William Friscia said.
1995 strategy no longer works
George Cleantis recalled a movement he helped lead in 1995 that he said resulted in a 30 percent tax reduction for Continental Village residents by having the area designated a “special segment” by New York State. He asked Kenney why the same strategy could not be used today. Kenney said the 1995 effort was successful because residents were able to show a tax discrepancy of more than 10 percent: the minimum requirement to gain special segment status. He said that Philipstown had reevaluated its assessment a year after the granting of “special segment” status and that a recent analysis he had conducted showed that current tax rates did not appear to be close to that level.
Carol Dobson, a trustee on the Lakeland School Board, said that the burden on property owners could also be reduced using a different approach – by reducing school spending. She cited billions of dollars spent on unfunded mandates imposed by New York state. “We spend a quarter of a million dollars on the MTA tax. We have no control over the costs of [teacher] pensions. We spend thousands of dollars on substitutes because of [mandatory] testing. New York is the only state to mandate Special Education class size. By law we must pay four hours of pay for people getting cancer screening. They could do that on their own time,” she said. “You need to help school districts reduce costs. Everyone’s taxes would go down and we would have more efficient schools.” Some in attendance nodded in agreement but one resident raised her hand and said, “But even if you reduce costs, we would still be taxed disproportionately.” Even more heads nodded after her comment.
While instant solutions were not evident, there may be a coalescing of interests that residents hope will soon lead to action. Galef pledged to continue her commitment to pass state legislation requiring towns to reevaluate assessment on a regular basis, although she admitted, “it’s tough to get a vote on it.”
“Who wants to vote to reassess everyone’s property?” she asked. “I did – but [then Governor)] Pataki vetoed it. How do you get people to vote? You have to write,” she said
Shea said that he will work to convene a meeting of the supervisors of the six towns within the Lakeland School District to discuss possible remedies. He also urged residents to actively support Galef’s efforts and asked that they also write to the Putnam County Legislature. “Tell them we need revenue sharing. Philipstown sends $9 million to Putnam County every year (in sales tax.) That could help offset the costs [of reevaluation,]” he said. Philipstown will also be adding links and tax related information to its website. Shea also called upon residents to support Ball’s efforts at reducing unfunded mandates imposed on municipalities by New York State. Ironically, the one area of nearly-unanimous agreement at the meeting was that New York State ought to force Photos by M.Turton