Michael Guerriero: Put a Lid on Tax Caps

The recession has left its mark on the budgets of state and local governments nationwide. Revenue shortfalls have forced states to slash their budgets and, oftentimes, withdraw state aid pledged to local governments.

Cities, towns and school districts are now forced to raise property taxes, their main (and sometimes only) revenue source. Struggling with escalating tax burdens, taxpayers cry out to their elected representatives to put a lid on the always rising local property tax and support property tax cap initiatives.

The tax cap is an old device that’s found new life in these hard times. At the forefront of tax cap initiatives is newly elected Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who proposes to limit the property tax dollars a school district can collect annually. The bill passed the New York State Senate and now must pass the State Assembly.

New York’s bill caps tax growth at 4 percent or 120 percent of the inflation rate, whichever is less. School districts may exceed the cap with voter approval, but voters can impose an even stricter cap or bar increases entirely.

Roughly 40 states have some kind of property tax restriction. Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts and West Virginia have a fixed cap of 5 percent or less. Colorado, Michigan and Montana limit growth to the inflation rate; while California, Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico, South Dakota and Washington limit growth to the lesser of a fixed percentage or the inflation rate.

Tax cap advocates say a cap forces school districts to cut wasteful spending while causing little to no harm.

Critics note that a cap simply slows down the rate of tax increases and does little to change the main drivers behind high property taxes. For example, caps cannot slow increasing costs for health care or fuel, nor do caps lessen demand for essential public services.

History has shown that tax caps simply shift the burden of funding schools to other sources, such as income tax, sales tax, fees and state aid. The bottom line is, a tax cap simply places a lid on the problem and kicks the can down the road for others to deal with.

Michael Guerriero is an associate at the law firm Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP in Mineola, N.Y., the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at mguerriero@taxcert.com.