Schenectady taxes high, but not at top of statewide list
Owner of average home pays $4,887 in total taxes
SCHENECTADY Schenectady is not at the top of the highest-taxed lists.
In an analysis fraught with apples-to-oranges comparisons, Binghamton has the highest combined tax rate of city, county and school taxes, according to a report by the Empire Center for New York State Policy.
But in actual dollars paid by the average property owner, New Rochelle in Westchester County heads the list with an estimated $15,153 bill, according to the Empire Center.
That list isn’t perfect — it bases the average home assessment on the average sale price of homes in 2010, which is often different from their actual assessment. Tax bills are based on assessment.
A comparison by equalized tax rate, issued by the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, showed Schenectady as having the highest tax rate in the Capital Region. Overall for the state, it’s No. 23 out of 75 cities.
In dollars, after adding in the city’s unusual fees, Schenectady is No. 18 on the Empire Center for New York State Policy list.
But that doesn’t make it any easier to pay the city’s taxes, Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy said.
“The reality is no matter where you live in New York state, property taxes are too high,” he said. “We’re not as bad as some people would think, and we’re not as good as I’d like.”
A homeowner in Schenectady with the average house, assessed at $110,800, pays $4,107.60 in taxes. The owner also pays roughly $779 in garbage, sewer and water taxes, because the average house has 1.5 baths. (Sewer and water rates are based partly on the number of fixtures in the house.)
That gives a grand total of $4,887 for city, county and school bills.
Across the river in Albany, the average homeowner with a $150,000 house pays $5,460 in taxes. That’s before sewer and water costs, which are metered.
However, Albany doesn’t release an average assessment for houses in the city, instead calculating averages for each of its 11 neighborhoods. Pine Hills has a $170,000 average. Arbor Hill has a $50,000 average. The Assessment and Taxation Department recommended using $150,000 as a city-wide figure.
Throw in the suburbs and the comparison gets even more muddied. Many suburbs don’t offer garbage pickup, and some neighborhoods don’t have sewer infrastructure, requiring the owners to pay for and maintain septic systems. Since any town might have both sewer and septic in various areas, it’s hard to calculate those costs.
And then there’s the volunteer fire departments, which in some areas can charge a special tax on the neighborhood’s houses, while others ask for donations.
In the cities, fire departments are generally included in the city tax bill.
Some small towns — like Duanesburg — also don’t have a police force, relying on state troopers, county sheriff’s deputies and a volunteer ambulance company.
McCarthy touts the city’s services monthly at citywide open houses intended to help sell homes. He argues that although the tax rate is lower in suburbs — it’s about 37 percent lower in Niskayuna — the city offers more for its tax.
“People have to look at the overall quality of life and delivery of services,” he said, noting that Schenectady’s tax includes firefighters and paramedics who respond within two minutes. School officials note that Schenectady’s larger schools can offer more electives, particularly at the high school.
“People are very appreciative of that quality of service,” McCarthy said.
City officials also argue that city tax rates are strongly linked to the unrestricted state aid each city receives. That aid is separate from money offered for transportation, border security and other specific costs.
Schenectady Budget Analyst Jason Cuthbert runs a yearly analysis of the unrestricted state aid given to Schenectady and other, similarly-sized cities.
Currently, Schenectady gets $11.2 million, while Utica gets $16.1 million. Other cities similar to Schenectady get a wide range of aid, from Niagara Fall’s $17.8 million to Binghamton’s $9.2 million
Cuthbert said he can track tax rates to the amount of state aid each city receives. Utica, for example, gets $5 million more than Schenectady and collects $6 million less in taxes.
“All the cities are basically the same size and we all need roughly the same money to operate,” Cuthbert said. “If they don’t get it in state aid, they need to get it in real property taxes.”