With talk of the New York State Legislature possibly ending its session early amidst gridlock, Erie County lawmakers are debating whether to hurry and vote on a proposal to amend the county's tax code.
Doing so, supporters say, will bring changes that help tackle zombie properties. Critics say more time is needed to pass a responsible plan, while rushing would mean budget deficits for municipal governments and school districts.
Legislators are being asked to vote on proposed changes to the Erie County Tax Act as early as Thursday. They include an acceleration of the foreclosure process from two years to one, moving up the deadline for local municipalities to collect taxes and lowering the current interest rate for late tax payments, which is currently at 18 percent.
Among the arguments for passing the changes is that they'll ease the burden on property owners who, through unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances such as health or life crises, fall behind on tax payments. Kate Lockhart of the Western New York Law Center spoke in favor of amending the tax act.
"This legislation accomplishes the goals of prioritizing vacant and abandoned properties while protecting homeowners," Lockhard said. "The legislation exempts properties that are owner-occupied from the accelerated foreclosure process, so that homeowners that are having temporary difficulty paying their taxes will have time to deal with any health or financial crisis they may have and gives those homeowners time to remain in their homes and negotiate with the county."
Lockhart was one of several guests attending a special informational sesison held Wednesday in Legislature Chambers. Deputy Erie County Executive Maria Whyte, who also spoke and was questioned by lawmakers, explained that the Poloncarz administration submitted the proposed changes this week in anticipation of committee discussion and then a vote by the Legislature's June 21 session.
"Unfortunately, the State (Assembly) and the Senate are adjourning, the Senate even considering an adjournment as early as the 15th, I've heard," Whyte said. "We were not able to meet that schedule and that brings us to where we are today."
It was still only a possibility as of Wednesday, not yet a done deal, that the State Senate would break early. With one of its members taking a leave due to military duties, senators face a 31-31 gridlock. The Senate's final scheduled meeting of the current legislative session is Wednesday, June 20. Some reports suggest the Senate may pull the plug and break by June 15.
County lawmakers agree they would prefer not to rush the proposed tax act changes, but some believe that given the threat of state lawmakers ending their session earlier than scheduled, they cannot afford to put their own vote off.
"Holding back is going to cost us a lot in this community," said Legislator Patrick Burke, who chaired Wednesday's hearing. "It's going to create a lot more zombie homes in this community. We need to get this done right away."
Critics of rushing the vote say doing so puts local governments and school districts at risk of budget deficits, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars.
"The implications are far reaching," said Legislator Joseph Lorigo. "We're not just losing revenue in Erie County, but the fees are also shared with municipalities and school districts. Those municipalities and school districts will also see about a third reduction, in what they're collecting through those fees, on an annual basis.
And that, Lorigo and other critics argue, puts more burden on the majority of taxpayers, those who pay them on time.
Lorigo also complained that he and other lawmakers only received their first word of the proposal last week. Several town supervisors or other representatives also say they've had little notice. Elma Town Supervisor Denny Powers was among municipal leaders urging patience by county lawmakers.
"Slow down. We just got this on our desks yesterday at a supervisors summit meeting that I host in Elma once a month," he said. "One of the supervisors laid it on the table and said 'did you know about this?' Nobody did. It's too quick."