Nobody likes to pay taxes. Taxes are rising, so the dislike of taxes is getting worse every day. The people most upset in many cases seem to be the people most able to pay, but that's another subject entirely. The real issue is what's behind the taxes, and the effects of what some people see as the cure.
Public employees and union employees seem to be at the head of the list. School staff are technically public employees as well, but are funded by a specific tax, so I'll address them separately as well. But overall, the tax burden is spread throughout communities at all levels, and in many forms.
Property taxes are the ones people seem to complain about the most, although sales taxes can be just as large, even larger as percentage of income depending on what you purchase. A new car, for example, might give you higher sales than property taxes for that year. Nobody seems to complain about those as much. I'm not sure why.
Calls for reductions in wages and benefits for public employees are increasing as more and more private employment is reduced or disappears entirely. That makes sense, at least on the surface. The assumption is that if that were to occur, the taxes would drop. I'd beg to differ. As those wages and benefits went down, many more people would qualify for government assistance, creating a larger drain on various government programs that are funded by taxes. Private businesses would suffer, as less money would be spent, therefore lowering the taxes they'd pay in. Some programs funded from the state General Fund are partially funded by the state income tax, which would also decline, thereby requiring a larger portion to be paid from other sources.
In other words, those public employees spend money, they buy homes and pay property taxes, they pay income taxes and they buy products at local businesses. It's very doubtful anyone would see any of their taxes drop one single penny if the incomes of any of these people drop and most especially if their jobs just disappear.
The largest single expense for any property taxpayer in the entire county is Medicaid. If the state were to take that payment over in full, as most other states do, more than $20 million would be removed from the county budget. Now that would be a substantial savings.
Is it going to happen? It's not very likely, as the state is as broke as the county and probably a hundred times as wasteful. So if that portion of the budget, more than 50 percent, is unassailable, how much can you really cut? I'm not sure, but I believe the Sheriff's Department is one of the largest, but that includes the jail.
Are we going to close the jail? I'd say not.
Well, we could cut wages and benefits again. Oops, there goes that loss of business and sales tax money and perhaps more people moving away and shrinking that property tax pool again. Somebody has to pay for water and sewer and repairs and operations and snow plowing and running of governments, don't they? If the pool of taxpayers drops, the amount of money they pay will raise, simple math.
If the County Home is sold, many of the anti-union crowds, who seem to think that's the only or perhaps the biggest reason the home is not "profitable", are assuming all the employees will have jobs in the now privatized home. Well, yes, many would, but I'd have to assume not as many and at a lower wage. That means less spending, affecting every local business in the area, and once again putting a large dent in the sales tax.
For some people, just like other cuts to other departments, one could be looking at a loss of homes. OK, who's going to buy them? And if nobody buys them, what happens to those property taxes? Think what might happen if NRG and Carriage House close at the same time. You'd have to assume homes would be lost, people would move looking for work, and those needing some sort of government assistance will rise as well. What happens to home values if a large amount of homes goes on the market at once? So how many of the people complaining about their taxes and demanding cuts at any price will lose an awfully large percentage of their wealth, at least on paper? And for those still left here, how many services you now receive are you willing to give up? You are going to give up some, and your water and sewer fees will rise, so even if your property taxes were to be lowered a small percentage, you'll just be spending it elsewhere.
Now we get to the schools, and the school property tax, which has been the fastest rising tax of all, and the absolutely most regressive. The oldest citizens pay the highest percentage of income yet get the least use out the system, and younger people in multi-family apartments pay none and more than likely have the most children involved. Yes, the owner of the building pays taxes, but not what say two families with two single family homes would pay. The school tax is the driving force behind much of the anti-teacher sentiment so rampant in the general population these days. It's a more local tax and therefore easier to take shots at. But once again, many, many people are missing a large part of the problem.
Yes, salaries and benefits are pretty good, but relative to jobs requiring the same education, not so much. And once again, mandated costs are sucking the blood out of budgets at an ever increasing rate. Nobody local is going to do anything about it because they couldn't if they wanted to. How many people screaming about taxes and pointing fingers at teachers are aware of and complain about all of those mandated programs? Is it deliberate ignorance to enable once again following the party dogma, or is the fact that the people responsible are too big, too unresponsive and too far away?
Merging schools should happen, but will be an expensive and logistical nightmare. Every town with an existing school is going to be left with a gigantic "White Elephant", with no money for tearing it down or very many prospects for different and future uses. New buildings will have to be built. Transportation costs will probably increase. We would save on some administrative costs, but how much? The real issue is property taxes being the sole source of income to fund schools. And in all of this, people need to realize that all school populations are declining!
This is New York and people are leaving, in droves. Our population is deceptive, as New York City has been the source of most of any increase, and much of that via immigration. Western New York, on the other hand, is definitely on the decline.
Income levels for much of upstate is dropping, and has been for quite a while, and is the main source of economic distress for local government, yet many are asking for more people to lose income and benefits, and expecting some sort of break that will never come, or won't accomplish what many believe it will. We have built an upside down pyramid as our economic model in New York, as well as a management model, and it's slowly collapsing on itself.
So, the boo birds will be out in force, the same half dozen zealots with all the same answers for every problem in the area, and none of them will open their eyes and unite in an effort to attack the real issue, special interests and the politicians they've purchased.
Paul Christopher is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org