A Social Justice Question for Rye Country Day
By Howard Husock
It is rare for a consequential case to come before Rye’s Board of Assessment Review, the obscure panel on which I, along with four other residents, sit. Overwhelmingly, our cases involve small sums tied to the assessments of properties whose owners claim are too high, thus raising their property taxes.
But a much more consequential case has now been adjudicated by the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, to which it was appealed. That Court ruled that six houses owned by Rye Country Day School should, as the school argued, be tax-exempt, thus overturning the ruling by the City Assessor with which the Board of Assessment Review had agreed.
As a result, the homes at 29-39 New Street will go off the tax rolls and the school will be exempt from some $60,000 a year in property taxes. Rye Country Day argued successfully that the homes, which are rented to faculty at below-market prices, are intrinsic to its educational mission.
The legal case has been decided, although the City may choose to appeal to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. Indeed, the precedent is important —as other private secondary schools may seek similar exemptions. I accept the court’s unanimous ruling.
Assuming it stands, however, that does not mean Rye Country Day should not reflect on the implications of its victory. Indeed, those at the school who seek social justice should be among those reflecting.
Here’s why: When Rye Country Day pays less in taxes, it doesn’t mean the overall tax burden in the City of Rye goes down; it simply means others will pay more.
Each year, the Board of Assessment Review sees grievances from residents, especially older residents, whose tax bills have gone up but whose incomes have not. Some will feel pressure to sell their homes.
Rye Country Day, keep in mind, has a $73 million endowment.
It’s unlikely, of course, that, having taken its appeal this far, and successfully, Rye Country Day will change course. At least, however, it might consider a Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT). Reducing its own taxes so others must pay is not social justice.