Niagara Gazette

July 27, 2013

GUEST VIEW: Controlling taxes in the Falls

By Robert Anderson
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — For elected officials taxes are like the weather: lots of talk but no one ever does anything about it.

With city council and county legislature races right around the corner it’s good to see that some of the tax talk is turning serious.

Last year the city council defeated a large proposed city tax hike. With the casino funds held up our mayor did what revenue-challenged elected officials do as a reflex action, they look to increase the tax burden on the residents. Across New York it’s an automatic response: a budget problem becomes a tax boost.

It’s that attitude that has made our state, county, and city the land of high taxes and slow growth. And with all the development incentives and giveaways that are offered we reach a point where we’re paying businesses to do business. There has to be a better way.

When I first had the honor of being elected to the city council 10 years ago I recommended that we investigate the benefits of lowering city taxes. The idea of dropping the tax rate — however modestly — was met with silence.

However, history shows that an idea whose time has not yet come is usually met with resistance and skepticism. Often the poorly received suggestion, after 10 years of conversation, becomes accepted wisdom. So it’s good to see the idea that we can stabilize and even lower taxes instead of raising them is finally on the table for discussion.

I was surprised to recently hear a current elected official and a former elected official discussing city taxes. During that discussion both officials agreed that “incremental tax increases are a good thing because this way we never need a large tax increase.” Wow, talk about being out of touch with the reality of the situation and the real needs of our community.

The problem with this sort of thinking is that it buys into to the belief that high taxes are more like a law of nature rather than a law passed by politicians. What’s the old saying: the only two things in life that are guaranteed are death and taxes. We may have to pay taxes but that doesn’t mean we have to keep raising them. And it doesn’t mean we’re forbidden from looking at ways to control taxes or even lower them.

Sure, we have plenty of costs in this city. Too many costs: a courthouse that ran wildly over budget; public safety commitments; a train station coming on line; infrastructure in need of repair; fees for consultants; fees for studies; economic development projects; increasing fees for legal services and more. Some of these expenses are out of our direct control, but many are within our responsibility and we’ve done a poor job in that regard.

This summer I’ve noticed an increasing number of homes for sale in the LaSalle neighborhood. An exodus of residents and a drop in home ownership are bad signs. These bad signs tempt a city to raise taxes on the remaining residents in order maintain existing property tax revenue. Instead of raising axes on those of us who remain it would be wiser to stabilize or lower the tax rate for those who still believe in the city. If you want to encourage home ownership and limit population loss you have to make living and investing in Niagara Falls more affordable.

To those who say “it’s impossible to lower taxes because ‘incremental’ tax increases are good business” I say they’re playing a losers game.

With the casino revenue back in our budget it doesn’t mean our problems are over, not by a long shot. But it does mean we now have some of the necessary tools to work toward getting the job done. And getting that job done is going to take cooperation, self-reliance and a turning away from the spending habits of our past.

We can’t do anything about the certainty of death but controlling taxes is well within our reach.

Robert Anderson is a member of the Niagara Falls City Council.