Change in State Tax Payments for Public Adirondack Forest Preserve a Bad Deal

By: John Sheehan - Adirondack Council Director of Communications
Friday, February 9, 2018

This week, the Adirondack Council urged Governor Cuomo to drop a provision in his 2018-19 budget proposal that would halt state property tax payments to localities for state-owned Forest Preserve lands in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. Instead, the state would make payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs). Upon first glance, it may seem like it’s a good idea, but when you take a closer look, you realize it’s not.

Currently, state law requires the state to pay full property taxes to counties, towns and school districts that host state-owned Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks. As with private lands, local assessors determine what the state owes in property taxes. The Council has always supported and will continue to support paying full taxes on Forest Preserve lands. Read more in our press release.

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Under this new proposal, a state-dictated formula would determine how much the state would pay now and how much those payments could increase in the future (two-percent or less in this plan). However, this formula doesn’t take into account the actual future increase in land value that will occur in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks.

The practice of taxing Forest Preserve in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks began in 1886, when legislation permitting it was enacted. Policymakers realized that state ownership of these lands in the Adirondacks was important to the downstate water supply, but the costs of keeping these lands of the tax rolls were largely borne locally…and this was unfair. Even then there was a recognition that Forest Preserve benefitted not only the residents of the two parks, but other people in other parts of the state as well.

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Today, through research and science, we realize that the Forest Preserve provides even more benefits not just to the state and nation, but to the entire world. The Forest Preserve provides clean water, clean air, homes to endangered species, spectacular views, solitude, recreational opportunities, and carbon sequestration. The mere fact that Adirondack and Catskill communities host Forest Preserve lands that benefit everyone is enough reason for the state to pay full taxes on these lands.

State officials have said this proposal would save money by lessening administrative overhead at the NYS Office of Real Property Tax Services. However, any short-term saving would be overshadowed by the potential long-term financial damage to the Adirondack Park’s 92 towns, 12 counties, nine villages, and dozens of schools districts. Any reduction in state payments for the Forest Preserve would shift the property tax burden to other local landowners. This is inherently unfair. The vast majority of the Adirondack Park’s towns have 2,000 or fewer residents, so there are few taxpayers to cushion any changes.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/images/IndianLake2_heilman.jpgPhoto by Caril Heilman

In addition, according to Census data, household incomes for year-round Adirondack Park residents are generally lower than the state average. However, land costs more inside the Adirondacks. In a 2015 study, Clarkson University found that over a 10-year period, lands located inside the Adirondack Park brought a price twice as high as similar lands located outside the Park.

Many Adirondack towns and counties have passed, or are preparing to pass, resolutions opposing this budget proposal.

If this plan is implemented, it could also have a negative effect on future land acquisition in the Adirondacks. Since local officials will be forced to deal with a constant threat of diminished revenue from the Forest Preserve, they may see it as a threat, rather than an asset to their towns.

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It’s odd that Governor Cuomo’s administration would propose a program that would have such negative effects on the Adirondack Park. This proposal is contrary to his long-standing history of helping Adirondack communities and the Park’s natural environments. The Adirondack Council will continue to explain to the Governor and his staff that this proposal could cause much more damage in the Adirondacks than meets the eye.

The Governor has 30 days from the release of his 2018-19 NYS Executive Budget to offer amendments, before the Legislature debates and votes on the measure.  We hope that he will listen to us, along with other local town leaders, and drop this provision before then. The current budget is due to expire on March 31.  A new budget must be in place by April 1.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/staff-headshots/John.jpgFor the past 25 years, John has been the voice of the Adirondack Council on radio and television, and on the pages of local, regional and national media.  John develops and executes the Council’s public relations and communications programs. 

He works with the media to explain the unique nature of the Adirondack Park and to help the public understand the Council’s efforts to sustain its clean air, wilderness, wildlife, clean water and vibrant communities.  He is the principal author of our annual State of the Park Report and assists with the editing of all Council publications. 

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