The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — Several times in recent years, Niagara County has held a dubious distinction.
An annual ranking presented by The Tax Foundation, a nonprofit group that has been monitoring fiscal policy at various levels of government since 1937, has pegged Niagara County at the top or near the top of its annual, national ranking of the communities paying the highest real estate taxes as a percentage of median home value.
Locally, officials representing various elected offices have consistently dismissed the ranking — which the Tax Foundation bases on U.S. Census Bureau data — as being a less-than-accurate depiction of the true property tax burden in Niagara County.
Conversely, challengers seeking elected office have sought to push the ranking as an acknowledgement by an outside source of what the locals know already: Residents in this area are overtaxed.
So when it comes to taxes is the problem any better, or getting worse?
The answer depends on which candidate is being asked.
Incumbent state Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane and his colleague, state Assemblyman John Ceretto, R-Lewiston, point to the 2-percent property tax cap pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and approved by state lawmakers last year as evidence that the tax matter is being taken seriously in Albany, and things are improving.
"With Governor (Andrew) Cuomo's leadership, we have gotten (the tax cap) in," Maziarz said. "That's going to go a long way towards controlling property taxes."
Ceretto agreed, calling the state's property tax cap, a "stepping stone" to a greater solution. He said it's only part of the equation and now it is incumbent upon state lawmakers to push for the next step — andate relief for local municipalities, including Niagara County.
"Part of the problem is the leadership in the Assembly, like (Assembly Speaker) Sheldon Silver," Ceretto said. "He doesn't want to pass my legislations. But, we have been able to work with the governor to help reduce some of the unfunded mandates, like with Medicaid, which are driving up taxes and we are phasing in a plan to assume any increased costs to the counties into the state."
Both Maziarz and Ceretto suggested state lawmakers have initiated several key financial reforms under Cuomo's watch and that the state — long known for fiscal irresponsibility —vis doing a better job of controlling its expenses. Maziarz listed pension and Medicaid reform efforts as examples and said, if elected, he'd push to consolidate municipal governments to add to the level of savings statewide.
"In New York state, one of the biggest reasons we have that property tax is the number of levels of government we have overlapping," he said.
Amy Hope Witryol, the Lewiston Democrat challenging Maziarz in this year's state Senate race, believes more must be done to bring tax relief to Niagara County and other parts of the 62nd District. She said Maziarz — who has been in office for 18 years — could have brought mandate relief to the district sooner but has instead "piled on" more unfunded mandates. She maintains that career politicians like Maziarz have contributed to the larger problem — a bloated state government that has lacked fiscal constraint.
"We have a state legislature that basically spend decades driving us to the edge of the cliff and now they've spent the past two years waiting for the governor to figure out the solutions," she said.
Ceretto's opponent, private attorney and Niagara Falls School Board member Robert Restaino, agrees mandate relief is critical to reducing the local tax burden but said "lip service" isn't good enough.
He said more should be done to eliminate waste in the state system as well. As a former Medicaid fraud investigator for the county, Restaino said he came across many instances in which state funds were being misused — an estimated $3 million alone in Niagara County, according to him.
Beyond that, he said, the county's tax base must be expanded by making Niagara more attractive to private-sector investment.
"We need this area to be more attractive to families," he said, adding that the consistent population loss in recent years has led to fewer taxpayers shouldering a larger share of the cost burden for both state and local governments.
Witryol believes a good way to expand the tax base would be to reform the way the government supports business creation and expansion. She pointed to local industrial development agencies like the one in Niagara which she believes are being used as "political vehicles" instead of being used to actually create more jobs and increase tax revenues raised through businesses.
"We need IDA reform statewide," she said.COMING TOMORROW Get an in-depth look at the races and issues in the 62nd Senate District and the 145th Assembly District in Monday's Gazette. City Editor Mark Scheer and reporters Justin Sondel and Timothy Chipp contributed to this report.