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Why are property taxes so darned high? Part III of this series, continued

By Ken Hilton
March 5, 2014

This article is the continuation of “Why are property taxes so darned high?,” a multi-part series examining Sullivan County’s local property tax burden. Most recently, I wrote about two reasons for our high taxes: (1) a huge growth in the size and costs of local governments and (2) the rural nature of the county with its sparse population footing the bill for local services, especially road maintenance, which is very costly. Here are a number of other reasons for our high property taxes.

Reason #3: Lack of commercial tax base

Sullivan County has very little manufacturing or commerce. With few factories or large commercial establishments to tax, the property tax burden falls on the homeowners. When asked last year why it’s so difficult to attract business to our county, Alan Scott, CEO of the Sullivan County Industrial Development Agency, cited three reasons: an inadequate business infrastructure, lack of a trained labor force and “our awfully high taxes.” So we’re stuck in a dilemma: the lack of business in our county makes our property taxes high, and our high property taxes discourage businesses from locating here.

Reason #4: Tax exemptions

New York State’s Constitution guarantees tax exemptions for religious, educational and charitable organizations, but allows the legislature to define such organizations. Over the years, local governments, with state approval, have greatly expanded the number and value of property tax exemptions. In 1970, 23% of property value statewide was tax-exempt. Today that figure is 30%. In Sullivan County about 20% of property is exempt, though some of our towns, notably Fallsburg at 40%, have higher rates. Many local governments have extended exemptions or partial exemptions to volunteer firefighters, farmers, senior citizens, veterans and others. Perhaps such groups deserve tax relief, but it’s good to note that as exemptions are granted to some, the tax burden is shifted to the remaining taxpayers.

Reason #5: Unfunded mandates by the state and federal governments