March 10, 2011 -- Businesses in Westchester County, a suburb north of Manhattan, pay the highest property taxes in the nation. And they are saying, "Enough is enough."
"Everyone assumes property tax is a homeowner issue, but it's really a business issue," said Paul Vitale, vice president of government and community relations with the Business Council of Westchester.
The organization has about 1,200 members and is lobbying to lower property taxes to keep businesses in the area.
Westchester is the county with the highest median real estate taxes in the country, at $9,044, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
According to Vitale, businesses pay 44 percent of property taxes in the state of New York.
Kail Padgitt, an economist with the Tax Foundation, a non-partisan tax research group in Washington, D.C., said property taxes are among the most transparent taxes. For example, while taxes on wages automatically are held from a paycheck, he said, real-estate owners can get more irked by having to pay one or more checks each year for their property taxes.
"With income tax, you have withholdings, you see it but you don't feel it. You don't think about the income tax," said Padgitt. "Property tax is very visible."
Marsha Gordon, president and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester, is in favor of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to cap property taxes to combat the high costs businesses and residents pay. Cuomo's bill was approved by the New York State Senate on Jan. 31. The bill most recently was before the state assembly.
"Certainly, as a business organization we see high property taxes as detriment to business growth," Gordon said. "We want Westchester County in New York [to be] a place where businesses stay and thrive."
Donna Greene, a spokeswoman for Westchester County Executive Robert Astorino, agrees that property taxes are too high, though said there are many components behind property taxes. Property taxes levied on behalf of the county itself are about 18 to 20 percent of a real estate owner's property tax bill. Other property tax levies may go toward municipalities or school districts.
"Of course, we're well aware that the high county taxes in Westchester County need to be dealt with," said Greene. "We don't want the dubious distinction for highest taxes."
Trying to reduce the tendency to raise property taxes has been a cornerstone of Astorino's agenda since he took office one year ago, she said, adding that his first budget proposal he reduced the county government's share of taxes.
"He recognizes it's a burden," said Greene.
Greene explained that the county has consolidated services to help local governments and school systems, while trying to maintain the area's "outstanding schools" and "excellent services."
On Wednesday, Westchester County and the town of Ossining signed a contract for the Westchester County Police to provide police services to the town.
Other towns are finding value in consolidating services with other cities and municipalities to maintain costs.
John Schettino is an attorney and resident in the county with the third-highest property taxes, Bergen County, N.J. As a member of the Harrington Park Board of Education, Schettino said officials have tried to reduce non-educational costs in order to maintain or increase spending for schools.
"We pursue these cost savings measures to provide some relief to property tax payers. We're very mindful and vigilant of that," said Schettino, 50, father of five children.
For example, Schettino said Harrington Park purchases school books with other districts in the area to receive better pricing from vendors.
"My opinion is that your property taxes are an investment in the community," he said. "For most people, their biggest asset is their home. To maintain that asset, you have to make sure your community is well run and your schools have an outstanding reputation."
Top 10 Counties in Median Real Estate Taxes Paid, 2009
1. Westchester, New York, $9,044
2. Nassau, New York, $8,940
3. Bergen, New Jersey, $8,708
4. Hunterdon, New Jersey, $8,671
5. Rockland, New York, $8,542
6. Essex, New Jersey, $8,245
7. Passaic, New Jersey, $7,939
8. Morris, New Jersey, $7,904
9. Union, New Jersey, $7,793
10. Somerset, New Jersey, $7,720
Source: American Community Survey