The Rye City School District is considering adding to the tax burden by imposing up to a 3% utility tax.
By Bob Zahm
The Rye City School District is considering adding to the tax burden by imposing up to a 3% utility tax. By taking this step, Rye would join a short list of Westchester school districts that levy a utility tax: Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, Peekskill, and White Plains.
New York State law permits school districts to impose a tax of up to 3% on gas, electricity, refrigeration, steam, telephone, and mobile phone usage sales occurring within their geographic boundaries. The tax is collected by the utilities and typically appears on customers’ (residences, businesses, clubs, churches) bills as a single line item that aggregates multiple governmental fees, surcharges, and taxes. (See sections 1210 and 1211 of the New York State tax law.)
Unlike property taxes, the utility tax is not deductible. This means it is more expensive to property owners because there is no federal subsidy available for it. So, $1 of utility tax costs $1 to the taxpayer. Depending on your tax bracket, $1 of property tax can effectively cost you 75¢, a 25% discount. This makes the utility tax 25% less efficient at revenue-raising then the property tax.
Because it is assessed at a flat rate, the utility tax is regressive. For any given level of utility usage, the tax will cost lower income earners proportionally more than higher income earners.
The utility tax, when mixed in with other utility fees, taxes, and surcharges makes it difficult for the individual citizen to understand what they’re paying and why they’re paying it.
Given the disadvantages, what does the School District gain from a utility tax?
First, more money. Beyond being a new revenue source, it automatically increases as prices for the underlying utilities rise. Because Rye only increases property values based on new construction, there is no equivalent “value” inflator to automatically raise property taxes.
Second, the utility tax circumvents the so-called 2% property tax cap and its required super majority for a tax cap override. A simple majority can approve it.
Third, in theory, the utility tax could cause some shift in taxation from homeowners to businesses, coops, condos, and not-for-profits.
Finally, it is a recurring tax that does not require an annual vote.
Residents have two formal opportunities to let Board members know their opinion about the proposal. The School District will continue its discussions about a utility tax at their April 29 meeting, and conduct a hearing on the tax proposal at their May 28 meeting.