Should We Consolidate Westchester's Overlapping Government Structure?

Phil Reisman discusses a revolutionary way to reduce Westchester’s high property taxes.

Here’s a great tax-saving idea: Let’s abolish Westchester County government! Or, we can approach it another way. Eliminate the county’s 22 villages. After that, let’s consolidate the 48 police departments and merge a dozen or more fire districts. But don’t stop there. We’re just warming up.

Now, take a sharp axe to the mother of all money-munchers, the administratively top-heavy public schools, which account for more than 60 percent of the county property-tax bill. Reduce the number of school districts by half, from 40 to 20. That alone would save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are too many judges, too many assessors, and too many superintendents of this, that, and some other thing. There’s just… too many and too much.

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Wait. You’ve heard this before?

Well, get ready. Chances are you will hear it again, thanks to the new federal tax rules on SALT, an acronym normally associated with nuclear-arms agreements. This is about something politically radioactive — state and local taxes.

In the past, the ability to fully deduct SALT from federal income taxes provided relief to homeowners in high-cost areas, like Westchester, where the average annual property tax is $16,500, the highest in the nation. For middle-class homebuyers, the SALT deduction provided a rare tax break and an entrée to the American Dream. That has been radically altered. Under the tax plan, the SALT deduction was capped at $10,000.  This instantly set off alarms. Among the dire predictions was that home values would drop 10 percent, thereby causing a mass panic and subsequent flight from New York.

It remains to be seen what will actually happen. But it’s not a stretch to believe that one result, for better or worse, will be renewed pressure to consolidate government and cut spending in order to reduce what are now non-deductible property taxes.

We may return to the days of Westchester 2000, a nonpartisan think tank that offered revolutionary solutions to the problem of high property taxes caused by expensive overlapping layers of government. Westchester’s confusing governing structure was— and still is — the fiscal equivalent to a Rube Goldberg mousetrap.

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Some of the Westchester 2000 recommendations were adopted, but most were relatively small bore and politically painless. The big items, e.g., merging school districts, were nonstarters.

Even modest cost-cutting ideas subsequently forged in the common-sense spirit of Westchester 2000 have died a silent death. Consider, for instance, a volunteer citizens panel that examined the ways and means to merge three fire districts in the town of Greenburgh. It caused an ugly, contentious battle. In the end, the idea went up in smoke, burned to a crisp, if you will, on the proverbial third rail of politics.

How absurd can it get? Periodically, a sane politician will come along and propose dissolving the town of Rye — an extraneous, vestigial organ of government evolution blessed with the staying power of a cockroach. These efforts have failed, and, sorry to say, it would require most of the pages in this magazine to explain why.

But here’s the bottom line: It’s about power and self-preservation.

That is essentially what Sal Prezioso, the executive director of Westchester 2000, told me in an interview in 2007, one year before he died, at the age of 95. He said there were too many fiefdoms and too many kings seeking to protect them. “Nobody wants to give up the throne,” he said.

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“The people who are against us,” he added, “are those who don’t want to lose their jobs — and they’re going to hold on to them for all they’re worth.”

Prezioso predicted that economics would eventually force some hard choices. It’s no accident that a populist movement to do away with county government coincided with the Great Recession of 2008.  Indeed, the mad-as-hell sentiment helped catapult the fiscally conservative Republican Rob Astorino into the county executive’s office. For seven years, he held the county’s property-tax levy to zero. But the county represents barely more than 15 percent of a property owner’s tax bill. The rest comes from schools and localities.

And so here we are in a quandary. It might be the perfect moment to dust off Westchester 2000 and some radical reinventing of government, once and for all. Or we could all move out of state to, say, Alabama, where the average property tax is $752.

But that would only be rubbing SALT in the wounds.

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