December 22, 2008, Schenectady Daily Gazette: Governor’s plan making unlikely bedfellows

Monday, December 22, 2008
By Stephen Williams (Contact)
Gazette Reporter

link to full article is here:

ADIRONDACKS — Local government officials and environmental groups are finding a rare point of agreement in criticizing Gov. David Paterson’s proposal to cap the state’s property tax payments to local governments on Forest Preserve land.

Capping those payments, they said, would break with a policy in place since 1886 to keep local governments and schools from being financially penalized because the state owns Forest Preserve land in those communities.

In some Adirondack towns, the state is the biggest landowner. The payments help support local services like schools, clearing roads and fire protection.

The governor’s proposal last week as part of his 2009-2010 budget, subject to approval by the Legislature, is that those payments not increase next year, even if local property tax levies go higher.

“Clearly, private individuals living on tight budgets don’t have the option of deciding how much property tax they pay, and neither should the state,” said William Farber, president of the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages.

Farber is supervisor of the town of Morehouse and chairman of the county board in Hamilton County, where the state is the largest landowner in most towns.

“The governor’s plan would bring 122 years of cooperation to a screeching halt,” said Brian L. Houseal, executive director of the Adirondack Council, one of the region’s leading environmental advocacy groups.

But Jeffrey Gordon, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget, said the proposal is consistent with plans to freeze all local government aid, as the state wrestles with a projected $15 billion shortfall.

“Given the state’s fiscal circumstances, this budget proposes to maintain or reduce aid to local government, and this is consistent with that,” Gordon said.

Gordon said the proposal is for all state-owned land subject to property taxes, not just Forest Preserve. The state paid $183.7 million in local taxes statewide last year, he said. That would rise to $187.4 million next year because of new land acquisitions, but Gordon said the payment on any specific piece of state land will be frozen.

Groups like the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club and Association for Protection of the Adirondacks generally favor more state land ownership of open Adirondack land as a way of preserving the natural environment, and see the state’s tax payments as a way of mitigating potential local opposition.

“This is not only unfair, it is bad public policy that would undermine local support for open space protection in the Adirondacks and Catskills,” said Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

The state owns about 2.7 million acres within the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park. The proposed cap also applies to about 288,000 Forest Preserve acres in the Catskills.

Those lands are protected as “forever wild” under the state constitution, meaning they won’t be logged or otherwise developed.

Local state legislators are coming out against the proposed cap, as well.

“The state has an obligation to pay its fair share of taxes. Not doing so would shift the state’s responsibility unfairly to local taxpayers,” said Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, the state senator for most of the Adirondacks.

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