Cohocton Wind Watch: Steuben ranks unlucky 13 in national tax bills
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Monday, September 28, 2009

Steuben ranks unlucky 13 in national tax bills

Bath, N.Y.

Steuben County received an onerous title this week from a national taxpayer watchdog group.

The Tax Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit, ranked Steuben County as the 13th-highest taxes in the country based on how much a home is taxed compared to how much it is worth.

The highest total tax bills come from downstate and New Jersey, where tax bills for the median home top $8,000 a year. The highest median tax bill comes from Westchester County, where the median tax bill is $8,890 a year. Four of the top 10 tax bills go to taxpayers in downstate counties, and the other top six are from New Jersey.

However, when comparing how much counties pay out in property taxes compared to how much their properties are worth — only one of the top 15 counties are not in upstate New York.

The average Steuben County taxpayer pays $1,928 in taxes annually, while the median home value is $84,000. That means taxpayers pay 2.3-percent of their home’s value in taxes, the 13th-highest nationally.

That overall tax bill is not as high as others across the country, being only $31 over the national median tax bill. The county ranks 335 out of the 783 counties in the report based on that figure.
Other figures were provided in the report, like ranking the counties on how much is paid in taxes compared to how much home owners earn.

The median homeowners’ income in Steuben County is $51,248, which amounts to 3.8-percent of the median homeowners’ income is paid in property taxes. A comparison with other counties nationwide puts Steuben at 178th place.

Along with Steuben County, other counties in upstate have seen the amount paid in for taxes per dollar of property value increase to national highs.

The highest paying county is Niagara County, which pays 2.89 percent of the median home value in taxes each year. Almost all of the highest-paying counties nationally are from upstate New York, including Cattaraugus County in 6th place with 2.52 percent of the value of a home, Chemung County in 10th place with 2.38 percent, and Ontario County, with 2.27 percent.

The data, registered for counties with populations higher than 65,000, do not include figures from Allegany or Livingston counties. Of the 3,077 counties in the nation, the report states, only 783 are listed in the report.

Figures from Allegany County can be calculated from data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau — where the Tax Foundation received its information — and the county falls within the trends set by other upstate counties.

The average Allegany County taxpayer pays $1,398 in taxes annually, while the median home value is $51,300. That means taxpayers pay 2.73 percent of their home’s value in taxes.

Mark Alger, Steuben County administrator, said many at the county level are frustrated by a lack of control.

“Obviously, it isn’t an honor,” he said of the ranking. “That ranking is representative of all property taxes, not just county taxes.”

County taxes are a major source of concern, Alger said, because there is a large burden placed on them by the state requiring counties to pay a portion of the Medicaid bill for the state.

“We pay roughly 18-20 percent of the Medicaid money for the state out of the county taxes,” Alger said, adding other programs required by the state, including a health department, help for the Office of the Aging, and a jail are major costs the county has to pay out. “In most cases, the programs we operate for the state are not at our discretions.”

And it’s not looking good for the future, either.

“Obviously, it’s crystal balling, but I would think the economic pressures are unlike anything we have experienced in the past,” Alger said, adding state funds are still not looking good despite calls from the governor's office to cut spending across the board.

Some problems include hikes in pension payments — expected to double in 2011, according to the Office of State Comptroller — as well as rising unemployment insurance rates due to rising claims.

Another problem, Alger cited, will be when the funding given to the state via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will run dry in 2011, meaning funds now used to shore up the state budget will have to be cut out of the budget or more costs will be shifted to the county and local government taxes.

At the national level, U.S. Rep. Eric Massa, D-29, said Thursday the federal government has to do more to keep costs off the state level, thus reducing the amount pushed onto the counties.

“The use of stimulus dollars to to return our fair share is vital,” Massa said, adding the state often pays in more taxes than it gets back from aid, but with the stimulus package, that situation has reversed.

While funding for infrastructure project have helped, Massa said, the biggest boost comes from spending for Medicaid and education, including Title 1 and Individuals With Disabilities Education Act programs.

“What we can do is insure the federal portion is fully funded,” Massa said.

In New York, unlike other states, the state passes on half of its burden for Medicaid — 25 percent of the total cost of the program — directly to the individual counties.

“It’s largely driven by the relationship between New York City and the state,” Massa said, adding the costs would be significantly higher for all state taxpayers if the sheer total cost of Medicaid payments needed for downstate were passed on to all.

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