Editorial: The right way to honor Tom Gulotta

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In March 1992, then Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta responded to a constituent’s concerns about controlling property taxes by calling for their elimination.

“The real property tax is one of the most regressive and burdensome taxes paid by our residents,” said Gulotta, who died last week at age 75.

“As property taxes increase, property values decrease,” he continued. “Seniors and those on fixed incomes are forced to move while young couples cannot afford to purchase homes. I am, therefore recommending the elimination of all real property taxes in Nassau County as the basic source for school districts and local government. The elimination of the property tax is essential to the future health and vitality of our region.”

Gulotta, a Republican, would serve as Nassau’s leader for 14 years before a financial crisis forced the county to seek a state bailout and drive him out of office.

But in terms of property taxes, Guolotta was not wrong.

Present-day Republican leaders – some of whom praised Gulotta at his funeral Friday – are currently engaged in a rearguard action against the reassessment of all residential and commercial property in Nassau intended to make the payment of property taxes fair.

Newsday recently published an analysis of Nassau County’s property reassessment and found  “that the new assessments are well within every major professional standard of accuracy and fairness.”

The analysis was supported by the New York State Office of Real Property Tax Services, which concluded that the reassessment eliminated the inaccurate and widely unfair disparities among home values.

This followed eight years under Republican County Executive Ed Mangano during which time no reassessments were done and about half the county property owners ended up overpaying their taxes and about half ended up underpaying their taxes.

According to a Newsday study, about $2.2 billion in taxes were shifted over seven years from generally more affluent property owners who successfully appealed their property taxes to generally less affluent owners who did not.

During which time Republican legislators said nothing.

This has not stopped county Republicans from now trying to score cheap political points, by among other things finding instances in which assessments on individual properties appear out of whack under the new assessment system.

But here’s the truth.

No matter how good the assessment system there are always going to be errors – unless the county is prepared to hire enough people to inspect every property every year. And even then assessments would be challenged. In some cases, with good reason.

Homes get improvements or they don’t. Neighborhoods get better or they get worse. School districts, which play a major factor in real estate values, get better or they get worse. Demographics change. Federal tax policy changes. Property values change.

That’s why property owners still have a right to challenge their assessments.

And here’s a second truth.

Even if the county hires enough people to inspect every property every year and they all assess the properties the same way, it would not change the fact that property taxes are unfair.

For the same reasons Republican Tom Gulotta pointed out nearly 20 years ago.

Property taxes are based on the value of someone’s property – not their income, which generally speaking is their ability to pay.

There is a form of taxation that is based on someone’s ability to pay. It is called an income tax. And it is used by the federal government, the state and — locally — New York City. Why not Nassau as well?

A Nassau County income tax could also help fix another source of unfairness in our tax system: the use of property taxes as the primary means of financing school districts.

The United States is the only Western nation that uses property taxes as the principal source of revenue to fund its schools and the result is huge disparities between public school districts.

How big a difference?

A recent report from the Manhattan-based Citizens Budget Commission concluded that 29 school districts in New York – including Wyandanch and Brentwood – are so underfunded that they will struggle this year to provide a “sound, basic education” required by the state Constitution.

On June 28, Wyandanch administrators announced layoffs and pay cuts affecting more than 100 school employees, including teachers, teacher assistants, administrators, bus drivers and security guards.

True, some of this may be attributed to flaws in distributing school aid by the state.

Critics have pointed out that the state’s system of allocating school aid gives some districts more money than they need, while others are shortchanged.

But this does not explain a system in which a school district such as Sewanhaka will spend $24,000 per pupil and an adjacent school district in Great Neck will spend $34,000 per student – with both districts drawing students from New Hyde Park.

If we as American citizens were concerned about giving every child an equal chance to succeed in this country or the value of educating our children to compete in a global economy, there would be an easy answer to this uneven playing field.

But in the end, there are too many people who paid to live where they do because of the advantages the area offers them, including the school system.

In his letter in 1992, Gulotta pledged to work to freeze property taxes at the county, town and city levels.

We believe he was onto something and would like to add our suggestion: Freeze property taxes at all levels of government in New York and make up any differences with an income tax distributed based on fairness.

That, more than any eulogies, would be a great way to honor Tom Gulotta.

 

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