February 6, 2012

Reviving farming in Dryden (and New York State)

George Frantz, once the consultant on the Dryden Comprehensive Plan, sent the Sustainable Tompkins list a note last week about the American Farmland Trust's No Farms, No Food rally day, coming on February 15th. He included their agenda for lobbying (72KB PDF), which mostly looks great. Good things like farmland protection money, nutrition assistance for consumers, getting state agencies to buy food from the state, and support for farmers markets.

I like all of it, but looking around Dryden and especially after the contentious battles over hydrofracking, it seems weak.

Farmers are getting crushed in New York State, and not just for lack of farmers markets. Some of it, to be sure, has to do with farmers getting lousy prices from food processors, who seem immune to much-needed antitrust action, but a lot of it comes from the way New York State makes municipal governments and school districts fund themselves.

In two words, that's property taxes.

The state has tinkered a little bit with income taxes in the last few years, but relying on property taxes for schools in particular creates large problems for poor districts and massive headaches for farmers. Every year, whether the farm does well or not, they get huge bills from schools, and smaller bills from counties and towns.

Why are we stuck here? Partly it's because Republicans have fought constantly against any increase in income taxes. (Last year's "we can call it an increase or decrease as politically convenient" was a masterpiece of Albany nonsense.)

At the same time, however, state Democrats make an equal but opposite mistake. This piece from the New York Observer really hammers it home:

The Democratic conference was still dominated by liberal and minority members, but they had taken control of the chamber by winning in longtime GOP strongholds on the suburbs of Long Island and even in rural hamlets in the North County and western New York.

On the first day they were in the majority, in a closed-door meeting, Brian Foley, a freshman lawmaker from Long Island in a seat long held by the GOP, told his new colleagues that he was thrilled to be a part of the team, and was looking forward to doing something about skyrocketing property taxes.

He was told he was in the wrong room. The Democrats are not the party that cares about property taxes. If you pay property taxes, you are rich, his new colleagues told him, according to people who witnessed the exchange. We are the party of renters. Mr. Foley said no more.

And so it went for the newly elected Senate majority. They instituted an MTA payroll tax and a millionaire's tax, both of which angered suburban swing voters. Instead of lavishing resources on the upstate counties their newly elected lawmakers represented, they devoted attention to their base in the city.

While I think renters are important and understand their central part in pretty much any conversation about Downstate politics, those dynamics don't work the same way Upstate. Despite what certain State Senators might think, renters get hurt by property taxes too - but here the distribution falls harshly on the farms we're trying to keep alive.

I've been appalled by the eagerness some farmers show for hydrofracking cash, but they have a point when they say the government just takes and takes and takes from them. If we want farms to continue here - and pretty much everyone I've talked with wants farms - we need to change the structure of taxes. That means reducing the hit of property taxes, or at least finding some sane way to move that hit away from farmers.

Unfortunately, the most local governments and school districts can do is try to keep their spending as low as the state will allow. Changing the formula for where that money comes from is something that only the state can do.

Maybe the American Farmland Trust thinks that's too much to ask? It sure won't be easy to get there.

Posted by simon at February 6, 2012 12:11 PM in ,
Note on photos


KAZ said:

Thanks for this. In my opinion, it's irresponsible to discuss hydrofracking without talking about property taxes and their effects on longstanding landowners. We Dems have been shamefully incompetent on the topic, whether because we're the "party of renters" (which I had never considered!) or because we blithely assume that all taxes are good taxes because they pay for stuff we need. Try bringing this up with the friendliest of your representatives and watch how fast you get shut down.

JML said:

As it stands right now the taxes collected from any gas drilling are through property taxes. NY has no excise tax. Also, the fee structure for gas permits doesn't generate much revenue.