Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Audit Of Northern Westchester’s Municipal Property Taxes Reveals Need For Simplification And More Transparency
Westchester government leaders are warning that local property taxes will increase in 2008 due to continuing drops in sales tax revenues and declining housing values. At the same time, local municipalities are facing an increase in health insurance and pension costs and increasing responsibilities for social services. The combination means dramatic tax increases for homeowners.
Despite FILO (Freedom of Information) laws mandating accessibility of government information, a concerned taxpayer would have extreme difficulty in accessing the details of where their tax dollars are going. An audit of the Northern Westchester municipalities revealed that most do not even have a summary of their 2008 proposed budgets on their web sites. Several towns did not even note which municipal department was responsible for the budget or who to contact to obtain information. Taxpayers in those communities would have no way of knowing how their tax dollars are being spent.
Even when a budget is posted online, finding a budget on a town web site can present a challenge for local residents who may not be familiar with financial protocol. Town budgets generally fall within the realm of a town Finance Department or Office of the Comptroller. For most towns the budget is posted under the specific department, not on the main “home” page where most residents would look. Peekskill makes it even more difficult for its residents to find their town budget – it’s posted on the town’s “bulletin” page through a “PDF” link (a link which did not work. All other PDF Files on this bulletin page could be accessed).
In contrast, residents in the town of North Castle not only have the full details of their community’s 2008 budget at their fingertips, but the town Comptroller also provides full supporting details for the budget including equipment replacement plans for each town vehicle for every year through 2015. Town residents in North Castle, especially those on fixed incomes, can readily see when the next major increases in the town’s spending will be so they can plan accordingly.
North Castle residents can also see their budget in graph form, making the proposed spending easy to understand (see chart on page 2).
For most local residents, even if their town budget is accessible, understanding it presents a problem. The majority of local towns that do post their budgets online also provide contact information, although the range of information that is provided varies widely. Some towns, such as Cortlandt, offer full contact data for each and every one of their staff members, including email addresses and fax numbers. But some towns, such as North Salem, merely provide the town’s main phone number with no additional contact information.
As of 2006, Westchester County residents faced the highest property tax levels of any county in the country. Given such a burden, property owners deserve to have a full explanation from their local officials as to how their property taxes are being spent. Some towns, such as Mount Pleasant, have a long history of not providing computer links to the community – residents have experienced difficulties with online bank payments of their property taxes, abstractors have complained for years of problems accessing town property records for title searches. Westchester county government acknowledges the need to provide online access to local residents, noting on its website that they
are continually upgrading to “keep ahead of changing times”. In a press release from May of this year, Andy Spano’s office reported that “the county government has done a major revamp of its award-winning website.”
“We pride ourselves on being one of the most technically savvy governments in the country,” said County Executive Andy Spano. “If you al-ready visit westchestergov.com, you are going to find our new site even more useful. Using eye-opening new graphics and design based on subjects rather than departments, the new website will give residents information in a more user-friendly way. If you have never visited our site, I urge you to do so now. Yes, there are new bells and whistles, but there is much more.
Whatever your interest, whatever your need, we have something for you.” In 2006, the county’s website received 8.1 million visits – 2.2 million more than in 2005 and 3.4 million more than in 2004. On average, more than 22,000 people visited the website each day, compared to 16,000 a day in 2005 and 12,000 a day in 2004.” (The County budget for 2008 can be accessed online at www.Westchestergov.com).
The use of the internet as a means of information is rapidly growing among all age groups. Many individuals, such as the handicapped, housebound seniors, and the mentally-ill, connect with their communities through their computers. They, and all residents, should expect, at a minimum, the following information to be provided online by their towns:
• Preliminary budgets, preferably several months before adoption;
• A comparison of the proposed budgets to prior years’ budgets and actual expenditures;
• Details of expenses, staffing, salaries, debt, and equipment;
• Future capital projects, loan needs, and equipment replacements for a minimum of five years;
• Full contact information for individuals responsible for budgets;
• Easy access to budget – preferably from town’s main web page;
• A summary, both numerical and verbal, of the budget highlights;
• Color graphs for major budget highlights.
North Castle’s website is a perfect example of an ideal budget presentation. The residents of all of our local communities should expect the same level of accountability from their towns.
Next week: Staffing and salaries in local communities.