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White Plains Pols: Tax Cap Strains Schools, City

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. -- Many local politicians say they understand why White Plains residents like Kathy Williams support the state legislature's move to pass the tax cap Saturday morning, however, the White Plains city hall and school system say they are now worried about how to implement the legislation.

Williams, 51, said limiting the property tax levy increase to 2 percent would be a wise move in the slumping economy. "Taxes are too high," she said. "They keep raising them and raising them and the economy is bad. Jobs are dropping ... Some people can afford it, but what about those who can't?"

Although local politicians say they see the urge to curb soaring tax bills, both Mayor Thomas Roach and New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) said the cap, which limits tax hikes to 2 percent or inflation, whichever is lower, may hinder White Plains city services and school districts. Limiting tax increases can be disregarded if the school budget passes by at least 60 percent instead of the current majority needed to pass the property-tax funded school budgets.

Paulin, a Democrat who represents the 88th District that includes White Plains, said the cap was a "political fix, not a real one," because the legislature didn't include exemptions for state-mandated pension contributions and health care that municipalities must provide for their employees.

"Without mandate relief, the municipalities are boxed in," said Paulin, who voted against the tax cap. "They’re forced to fire firefighters to pay for fire equipment. They’re forced to fire police officers to pay for police cars. There is no way to pay for emergencies at all. It all has to be contained within the tax cap ... As far as schools go, they’re forced to fire teachers and increase class size because there was absolutely no mandate relief. Pension costs alone will reach the level of the tax cap. Without significant mandate relief, it will erode our educational system and our municipal services that we in Westchester cherish."

Some residents suggested that the cap might drain so much money from commercial properties that high taxes might be pushed on homeowners. Paulin confirmed that the legislature had no exemptions for businesses.

"Say we’re going to tax the White Plains residents $100 million, next year we can only tax them $120 million," said Paulin. "But when those tax burdens are put onto the residents, it doesn’t mean that individual bills won’t go up. In fact, they probably will because we have a shrinking tax base."

Mayor Roach, a Democrat, said he was "optimistic" that Albany would address concerns about the rising costs of government employees' pensions and healthcare next session. Until then, he said city hall would continue to "watch every nickel."

"The 2 percent is seductive to people at the higher level because they can simply put it in place and the voters love it," Roach added. "But then we have to figure out how to get there, when we’re getting increases from them, that would raise [taxes] twice the rate they’re permitting."

According to Roach, in the last budget the state-mandated pension contributions would require a 5 percent property tax rate increase in White Plains, however, the city kept it down to 4.9 percent. "That tells you right there that we had to cut everywhere else just to make up that difference," he said.

White Plains Public Schools Superintendent Christopher Clouet said the cap will likely translate into fewer opportunities at local schools.

"The schools overtime will have to provide fewer services that are considered integral by many," said Clouet. "For instance, whether we’re able to continue over the years to have the vibrant sports and arts program that we have ... We have to prepare the kids for evermore rigorous state assessments at a time where our ability to raise revenue is now mandated by the state."

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