City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has discovered that few issues are as complex and politically untenable as reforming New York’s arcane property-tax system.
The speaker announced a commission to study the issue in April 2014, telling the Wall Street Journal at the time it would “spearhead changes to the city’s outdated tax code and create a more equitable and transparent property-tax system to meet the demands of New York City in the 21st century.”
But, as POLITICO New York first reported more than a year ago, the commission was a nonstarter.
Mark-Viverito addressed the issue during a speech she delivered at a breakfast hosted by Crain’s on Thursday morning, in response to questions from the moderators about the city’s structure of collecting real estate taxes.
She described it as “crazy” and “really, really unfair” and said the state would have to agree to a complete overhaul in order to enact meaningful reform.
She also took the opportunity to repeatedly come out against a proposed 2 percent cap on the city’s property tax levy, which is being pushed by some state lawmakers, including Queens Democrat Tony Avella.
She was asked at a panel discussion after her speech if the Council has the “courage” to increase taxes on certain New Yorkers in order to even out the burden in the infamously lopsided tax system.
“Initially I had indicated some interest in taking a look at this. As with anything, you have to figure out where your priorities are, and for me, I think there can be appetite; we do have these conversations internally; there are concerns that are raised, and I think right now restructuring the whole system is not something that I have immediately on the horizon in terms of addressing,” she said.
Criminal justice reform, by comparison, is a bigger priority, she added.
Speaking to reporters after the breakfast, she said the commission “didn’t make the cut for things that we want to focus on” and added, “you have an idea at some point about something you want to look at, but there might not be buy-in and that is part of my responsibility as a leader to weigh that with my colleagues.”
The commission, led by Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, the body’s finance chairwoman, has since morphed into a task force to study tax breaks and incentives for commercial projects.
“The charge of the group is, how do you measure the effectiveness of a tax break once you’ve given it,” said Councilman Dan Garodnick, who sits on the task force. “You don’t want to throw away taxpayer money, and tax incentives can be a useful tool where employed properly or they can be an unnecessary gift.”
Two members of the task force who would speak only on background said they believed the de Blasio administration pushed Mark-Viverito to shy away from focusing on property taxes.
“My sense is the administration said that that was something that really needed its own conversation, that they’d work with them on, and haven’t,” one member said.
Another member added, “It’s actually the wrong decision, but I understand why any mayor would be hesitant to take that on, especially the year before an election.”
That member said the commission was given instructions not to tackle any residential tax breaks, such as 421-a.
“What we were told on that was … housing is off the table,” the member added.
A spokesman for Mark-Viverito declined comment on those charges.
A spokesman for de Blasio wrote in an email, “Just about everyone agrees we need to rationalize this antiquated system so the burden is applied more fairly, as the inequities have grown over decades. It’s an issue that cuts across the state and city, and won’t be easily reformed.”
The task force has met a handful of times and is expected to release a report on commercial tax breaks, put together by the Council’s finance division, sometime in the spring, the sources said.
“I think the broad consensus was that all of these programs are broken, but I can’t imagine there can be any consensus on how you fix them,” said one member.
The 11-member commission includes James Parrott of the left-leaning Fiscal Policy Institute, Michael Dardia, who worked in the Office of Management and Budget under former mayor Michael Bloomberg and Javier Valdez of Make the Road New York.
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