The Catskill Center and over 100 organizations, municipalities, counties, business owners, and local taxpayers sent a letter to the State Legislature with their formal request.
"The Governor's budget has given the Catskills a cold shoulder at a time when our communities need a security blanket," said Lisa Rainwater, Executive Director of The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. "In some communities the State owns up to 70% of the land. The remaining percentage is often owned by small landowners, farms, and businesses - many of whom have been hardest hit in this economic downturn," Rainwater continued. "These folks shouldn't be expected to make up the State's shortfall. The New State Legislature must reject the Governor's proposal in order to protect our struggling communities."
In the Town of Shandaken in Ulster County, over 65% of the land is owned by New York State. In 2007, NYS tax payments to the Town totaled $595,259; in 2008 they jumped to $627,832 - an increase of over $32,000 in one year.
Brian Shapiro, Chair of the Ulster County Environmental Committee and County Legislator representing Shandaken strongly disagrees with the proposed tax freeze. "I respect Governor Paterson for making tough decisions when it comes to the State budget, but shifting the tax burden to small communities and county taxpayers is not a viable solution, especially when it threatens to undermine long held agreements involving environmental protection and the Catskill State Park system," said Shapiro.
"If the Governor's proposal is approved by the NYS Legislature, increases in Catskill property taxes not paid by the State will fall on the shoulders of Catskill residents and businesses," said John Wadlin, President of the Catskill Landowners Association (CLA). "In hard times, private individuals can't opt out of paying property taxes - the State shouldn't be able to either." CLA promotes land protection and preserves property rights of its members.
A 123-Year Old New York State
Commitment in Jeopardy
The NYS Legislature made a commitment to pay full local property taxes in 1886, when it created the Adirondack Forest Preserve. A similar commitment was made when the Catskill Park was created in 1904.
"We are asking NYS to preserve the practice that was established in 1886 of maintaining comparability of tax payments on Forest Preserve Lands with those on private land," noted Jim Waters, Executive Director of The Catskill Forest Association, Inc.
State tax payments are compensation for the prohibition against commercial use of the Forest Preserve, and in recognition of the services provided by local taxpayers, including police, fire, courts, and road maintenance.
"It is unconscionable, during these hard economic times, that New York State owned properties would have a tax freeze," said Mary Beth Silano, Executive Director, Delaware County Chamber of Commerce. "The state owned property tax freeze would add more financial burden on Delaware County municipalities, residents and businesses."
Catskill Taxpayer Burden Would Be Steep
State property taxes are paid to more than 100 towns and 16 counties in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves - a total of nearly 3 million acres. State Forest Preserve lands within
the Catskill Park total 287,500 acres (41%), while private land totals 381,070 (53%). The remaining six percent is held by New York City. Four counties within the Forest Preserve rely on annual New York State property taxes: Delaware (42,000 acres), Greene (79,200 acres), Sullivan (18,800 acres), and Ulster (154,200 acres). New York State pays approximately $30 million annually to local Catskill municipalities. According to the NYS Division of Budget, the Governor's proposal would save the State $9 million in property taxes in 2009-2010 and $16 million in 2010.
In 2000, New York State paid approximately $108 million in property taxes to municipalities throughout New York. By 2007, the total had increased to approximately $173 million - more than a 60% increase in seven years. Specific to the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, the State paid $48 million in 1998. In 2008 the property tax bill had reached $69 million.
A Threat to Future NYS Open Space Initiatives
In 2006 the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) updated New York State's Open Space plans. Its protection goals included working with local governments, regional organizations, and private landowners to acquire new lands and establish conservation easements. The Open Space in New York State plan identified several priority conservation projects in the Catskills, including the protection of unfragmented forests, the protection of Catskill river and road corridors, and the protection of New York City Watershed lands.
"Protecting our natural resources through open space initiatives benefits all New Yorkers," added Lisa Rainwater. "The Catskill Forest Preserve also brings much needed tourism dollars to our local economy, but Governor Paterson's proposal would put a grinding halt to any future open space initiatives in New York State. If a community won't receive the same amount in property taxes from the State as from a private individual, there is no incentive to support State land conservation in their area."