Column: Spock would be a frustrated mayor

Jason-Column2By now, it should be no surprise to you to learn, first, I am a Star Trek nerd and, second, I vastly prefer the original series—Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, et al.—to anything that’s come after it.

It occurred to me the other day Mr. Spock would have a lot of trouble being a municipal mayor in New York State these days.

Shall I explain?

If you’ve been reading the Review lately, you know it’s budget season for local school districts and some smaller municipalities. You also know the mightiest of struggles, according to the folks creating those budgets, is the property tax levy cap signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, in June 2011. Ostensibly created to provide homeowners with tax relief, the legislation, in essence, restricts the total amount of money a municipality or school district can charge for its services. An eight-step formula, created by the state, determines how much a taxing entity can levy for the upcoming year using the tax levy from the previous year as a base.

That I think Spock would be good at.

Because each municipality is different, each total tax levy ends up being different and, therefore, the amount each school district or municipality can raise its tax levy is different every year.

I think Spock would still be with us at this point—Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations and all that—but what is thought of, and, frankly, reported as, a tax levy cap is not really a cap at all because a municipality can create a local law to override its calculated cap with a 60 percent vote of its governing board. A school district can put a cap busting budget before the public and it can pass as long as it has 60 percent of the people behind it.

So, really, the tax levy cap isn’t a cap at all, it’s a point at which, to exceed it, a taxing entity has to meet a higher threshold of approval.

Spock, as you may know, is half Vulcan. The prevailing philosophy among Vulcans is logic; cold, rigid, unwavering logic and Spock, though half human, has dedicated himself to this discipline. Logic can be an effective way to view the universe and navigate the many dangers and wonders it presents.

It is probably not the best way to view New York State municipal tax policy, in which a mandated property tax levy cap is actually a varying brink over which taxing entities may pass with enough support.

Illogical? Unfortunately for would-be Mayor Spock, there is something else.

The state mandates local municipalities and school districts contribute, sometimes mightily, to their employees’ retirement. For school districts, implementation of the Common Core learning standards has been state compelled.

For these things, things these taxing entities must do, the state provides zero funding.

And everyone has to stay within the state calculated property tax levy cap. Which isn’t really a cap, but you get the point.

Still want to be mayor, Spock?

Now, if I’m going to be charitable to the state, I might say all of this is designed to, let’s say, encourage local governments and schools to find ways other than property taxes to fund their budgets. A town might try to impose a hotel tax, for example, or maybe a school district could put a utility tax in place.

Except Gov. Cuomo, who recently unveiled a plan to try to freeze property taxes for the next two years, pledged not to allow any new taxes in the state and getting such things passed has proven almost impossible.

So essentially, Spock, here’s the deal, in your terms. I want you to lead a landing party to Talos IV to survey the geological makeup of the planet. The party will consist of you and six other crewmembers, but five of those crewmembers have to be armored security guards, everyone has to carry a crate of tribbles and a hypospray of Retinax no matter what else they need, and you can only beam back 1.76 percent of any soil samples you take. Unless 60 percent of the party agrees you need more.


I’m not a tax and spend guy, and I suspect Spock wouldn’t be either, but it would take Surak to figure out the logic, or the benefit to the taxpayer, in the state’s tax relationship with its schools and local governments.

CONTACT: jason@hometwn.com