ITHACA, NY – We all know that property taxes in Ithaca are high. Here are a few of the underlying reasons why.

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According to this 2013 CNN interactive map, the average annual tax burden for Tompkins County was $3,918. That makes it the second highest in Upstate New York, after Monroe County. A few other counties in the Finger Lakes region and the Capital Region come close, but many other New York counties clock in at almost half that amount.

What are the underlying reasons that this small city in a small county in the middle of the state has such high property taxes?

Here are a few of the explanations from the perspective of Tompkins County – a future article will address concerns more specific to the city.

Unfunded mandates from the state

If you look at the CNN map, where the darker blue colors indicate higher tax burdens, you can clearly see that New York as a whole is among the costlier states, along with Wisconsin and several New England states.

County administrator Joe Mareane explained how counties act as an agent of the state in delivering various human services programs. That is one factor that drives up costs.

“A lot of the programs we deliver, and the most expensive programs we deliver, are state programs. They require counties to deliver those services for them and to pick up a part of the cost,” Mareane said.

“The state is very prone to say that its taxes are low… that they’ve done a lot to reduce taxes. And they’re quick to attack counties for high taxes,” Mareane said. “That exists in part because they do transfer so much of their own burden from their own budget, to our budget where taxes have to go up for pay for those things.”

Other states, according to Mareane, do not push costs down to the county do this – or if they do, they reimburse the county.

Mareane cites Medicaid in particular which makes up the largest chunk of the county’s budget. He explained that if New York took on the $11.5 million cost for medicaid, “We could reduce our property tax levy by 25 percent overnight.” That comes out to a savings about $282 to the taxpayer.

According to Mareane, the state has pushed a number of other programs down to the county level, including pre-K and special education programs, legal representation for those can’t afford it and public assistance. If the state took over all of those mandates, Mareane says, the county could cut its tax levies by half.

Mareane says that the county continues to fight with the state over this issue, though he feels it’s unlikely that we’ll see the state reabsorb a larger mandate like Medicaid. However, it’s possible some of the smaller mandates might shift back to the state’s budget.

Is Tompkins County “tax and spend”?

Mareane points out that while Tompkins certainly isn’t some sort of Swiss tax haven, it is far from the worst. “If you look at the property tax rate, we’re dead center. We’re not high, we’re not low. If you look at taxes per capita, we’re 41 out of 57 [counties] – we’re in the lower tier in terms of taxes per capita.”

Those numbers are based on 2012 data compiled by SeeThruNY (2012 is the most recent data available). In terms of total expenditures, Tompkins ranked 49th out of 57 counties.

“The stereotype is that we’re high tax, high spend. Objectively, we are relatively low tax and very low spend,” said Mareane.

He continued: “There’s also this stereotype that we’re more generous than other counties in terms of human servies. I think from a human perspective, we’re more humane in the way we deliver our social services. But if you look at the cost, we’re number 40 out of 57.”

“So my perspective is, we’re doing pretty darn good,” Mareane summed up.

Mareane said that the county’s tax bill for the average family is around $1,100, which leaves $2,900 unaccounted for in the average. So if not the county, then what is bumping up the county average?

“Well, I can tell you where it’s not — I just did,” said Mareane. “I really don’t think it’s with the county. You’d have to look at the city and the school district.”

For the next piece, we talk with Ithaca City Controller Steve Thayer for some insight into why property taxes in the city are so high.

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Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.