A Taxing Time In Onondaga County’s Suburbs

On Tuesday, the Onondaga County Legislature unanimously passed a plan to distribute the revenues from sales tax collected in the county over the next decade. The key point–in a era when sales tax receipts have been dwindling, Onondaga County and the city will maintain their levels of revenue by phasing out the distributions usually made to villages, towns and school districts.

As a city resident, accustomed to the disdain and outright hostility that the suburban members of the Legislature hold for the city, its government and its people, I was somewhat shocked to see a unanimous vote on a plan that essentially holds the city whole. The vote was even more surprising in light of the original response of Legislature Chair James Rhinehart, who drafted a typical “gut-the-city” proposal that would have given tax cuts to suburbanites and forced the city to raise property taxes by an additional 16% over the current proposed increase of 5%.

The pressure placed on Rhinehart must have been intense. The city had an ally in our state delegation, who not so subtly threatened to redirect all of the additional 1% sales tax that NY State authorized the County to collect to the city, if Mayor Miner felt compelled to walk away from the tax agreement negotiations. Then, the County’s power structure also weighed in–newspaper editorial, letters from the Chamber of Commerce, the University etc.–all backing the Miner/Mahoney plan.

The resulting unanimous vote stuck largely to the Miner/Mahoney blueprint.

The plan will generate a lot of discussion over the next decade about services in the County–large towns like Geddes and Salina are going to find it hard to provide the type of police and fire coverage that the County’s money helped them to provide.

This was Onondaga County’s idea all along. The towns have been resistant to the idea of consolidation. Now they are going to have to explore these ideas or face angry taxpayers wondering why their tax bills are skyrocketing. Expect to see a shifting landscape out in the County over the next ten years: fewer independent villages, larger towns collaborating to lower costs–the kind of discussion that never would have gotten off the ground without the discipline and seriousness of purpose that potential bankruptcy forces on politicians. In the words of Elvis Costello: “clowntime is over.”

The tendency in the suburbs will be to blame the city for this change in the status quo. Yet, the city isn’t really getting any more money than usual. The difference is that the County government is keeping much more of the money it collects from sales tax, in order to deliver many of the services mandated by the state and to pay the whopping huge bill for its unionized work force and their pension costs.

Both the city and county face a structural deficit in the costs of its services, the mandates placed upon them by the state and the ticking time bomb of retiree pension costs. For years, this deficit has been papered over by massive transfer payments from Albany. The collapse of the national economy, Wall Street chaos and the state budget deficit means a foreseeable future of reductions in assistance from Albany. This sales tax agreement sees the city and county taking their first halting steps into a dark and unknowable future. Nothing can be the same and a metro-wide consolidation is probably the only real long-term solution.

I am (as always) indebted to Ellen over at NYCO’s Blog for helping to crystallize my thinking on this issue. She has a very interesting post up on this issue right now–check it out. I’ll be commenting there as well.

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4 thoughts on “A Taxing Time In Onondaga County’s Suburbs

  1. Ellen

    Thanks for the plug…

    I wanted to know how this end result happened, and you’ve answered my questions about the political maneuvering involved. I have to wonder if someday off in the distant future Geddes (Onondaga County’s youngest town) is going to be annexed, particularly since this deal seems to impact them the most.

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  2. Eastside Anthony

    Phil, both you and Ellen had great posts on this very controversial topic. I think the only solution to what ails all of the cities that dot the Upstate New York landscape is a metropolitan form of government, or at the very least a liberal annexation policy. All of the cities that have been the most successful over the last fifty years are those that have been able control costly suburban sprawl and maintain a healthy urban core.

    Years ago, Portland, Oregon instituted a growth boundary that has made it a modern urban city upon a hill. Indianapolis, Miami, Louisville and Nashville have all been able to control infrastructural costs by consolidating with their counties.

    For too long we have clung to an archaic system of government that divides our people into small insignificant fiefdoms at the cost of our collective present and future.

    In order for “greater” Syracuse to thrive, we must explore creative ways to cut down on the costs of government and allow our assets to thrive.

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  3. Anthony: I agree with you on metro consolidation, but I’m not going to be happy about it. The economics are undeniable, it’s the cultural and political changes that I will regret.

    Folks in the County hate the city. In a consolidated government, the city will be gerrymandered into irrelevance–just as the County Leg. screwed the city with its contraction plan a few years ago. With no powerful city government, don’t expect any people of color to hold any positions of influence in metro government. Same thing with Democrats and liberals.

    The diversity of the city will be swamped by the monolithic white Republican conservative culture of the suburbs.

    Unfortunately, it’s going to be the only way to continue to afford the public services we need–well, at least some of them (I fully expect free municipal trash pick up to disappear–as it doesn’t exist now in the ‘burbs.)

    Consolidation is coming, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it!

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