Report examines Rockland’s second-highest in the nation tax burden

By Ryan Deffenbaugh

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A series of factors — including high public-sector salaries, an eroding tax base and demographic and economic shifts — have led to Rockland County’s distinction as the second-highest taxed county in the United States, according to a recent report.

Rockland’s status as second fiddle only to Westchester County when it comes to taxes was examined in “A Crushing Burden: Why Is Rockland County So Heavily Taxed,” a report by the Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, a Newburgh-based nonprofit regional planning think tank.

The report was commissioned by the Rockland Business Association, which tasked Pattern for Progress with finding the answers to whether “the assertion of Rockland being so severely tax burdened (is) true, and if so explain why,” as described in the report by Pattern President and CEO Jonathan Drapkin.

“We are not looking to do any finger pointing,” said Al Samuels, president and CEO of the Rockland Business Association. “We wanted to give Rockland an instrument to help guide its way to sustainability.”

Pattern for Progress’ 75-page report finds that Rockland County is, indeed, taxed higher than almost any other county in the country.

Rockland’s median tax bill in 2013 was $10,550 for a single-family home, the report found, using data from the online real estate database Zillow. Only Westchester’s median tax bill of $13,842 was higher.

The entire list of the nation’s highest taxed counties is comprised of counties in the New York metro area. Nassau on Long Island and Bergen, Essex, Passaic, Union, Morris, Hudson and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey round out the top 10.

That makes sense, as the report found that a driving force behind Rockland’s high taxes is its proximity to New York City. “There is a price to pay for location adjacent to the global economic engine that is New York City,” the report notes.

The report finds proximity to New York City isn’t the sole cause of the high tax burden. Pattern for Progress found several reasons, including:

  • High level of public employee compensation in local police departments and in school districts relative to median household income.
  • Heavy debt at the county level following a budget deficit crisis in 2011-12.
  • Demographic and economic shifts that have led to an increase in poverty rates and stagnating median household incomes. As poverty increases, the report explains, so does the demand for school and government services. For example, the percentage of Rockland residents enrolled in Medicaid went from 9.5 percent in 2000 to 24.5 percent in 2013, according to the report.
  • The town of Ramapo’s emergence as the county’s fastest growing town by far, where tax exemptions on properties used for religious purposes have “skyrocketed.”

High taxes can result in a loss of people living in the county and a slowdown for business, according to the report.

“When housing is unaffordable, households have little to no ‘disposable’ income to spend on other amenities such as entertainment, dining out and other goods and services that drive local economies,” the report stated. “In this sense, the domino effect of high housing costs — caused in large part by high property taxes — can have a negative effect on the economy.”

The report lays out a series of steps toward easing that tax burden, including honoring the statewide tax cap and pushing for tax exemption reform at the state level. The report also suggests examining school costs. The county and its municipalities should consider offering early-retirement incentives for senior staff members as well as increased service sharing among school districts, Pattern for Progress advised.

Pattern for Progress also recommended increased pursuit of delinquent taxes. The report notes that Rockland County Executive Ed Day highlighted the problem of delinquent tax payments recently through a public campaign that accelerated collection efforts on commercial properties.

In a column for the Rockland Times, Day wrote that the Pattern for Progress report “made even more clear” the burden of taxes in the county. He said that for 2017 he has submitted a budget proposal that stays within the state tax cap of 2 percent.

“Rockland’s deficit is now just over $16 million,” Day wrote. “Our finances are improving every day. And, most importantly, I have stopped the endless cycle of tax-and-spend government. No more double-digit tax increase, which has sadly become the norm prior to my taking office.”

Samuels said he has been encouraged by the conversation the report has sparked among nonprofits, real estate brokers and elected officials.

“I’m happy folks are starting to use this in the positive way we intended,” he said. “What can we do to change the direction? Because we’re going in the wrong direction. If the trend going back to the 1970s continues, we will have an unsustainable future.”

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About the author

Ryan Deffenbaugh covers energy, education, food and beverage and the Sound Shore for the Westchester County Business Journal. He previously worked for Westchester Magazine and The Citizen daily newspaper (Auburn, N.Y.). He started with the Westchester County Business Journal in March 2016.

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