On Tuesday night, Clarkstown Supervisor Alex Gromack said in his state of the town address that Clarkstown is committed to officially studying the ramifications of becoming a city. Gromack said as a city, Clarkstown could collect its own sales tax, instead of seeing county government take virtually all of it. Right now Clarkstown accounts for over 60 percent of all sales tax in Rockland, thanks mainly to the enormous revenues of the West Nyack Pyramid Mall.
BY DYLAN SKRILOFF
Can you see a future “City of Clarkstown” or perhaps a “Clarkstown City?”
While Supervisor Gromack said he did not know how much sales tax a city is entitled to take in, citing the need for the town to study the matter, research revealed that cities generally split sales taxes 50/50 with the county they are in. Cities are not permitted to levy extra sales taxes without special permission from the state. So theoretically, and surely there are many details yet to be revealed, the County of Rockland stands to lose approximately one third of its sales tax base, around $50 million, if Clarkstown becomes a city and gains a 50/50 split of sales tax.
The added revenues would allow Clarkstown to drastically reduce property taxes in the new city, while the county would presumably be forced either to delete large portions of its government, or raise county property taxes on everyone, including residents of Clarkstown, as much as another 60 to 90 percent ($400 – $600 a year for the average household).
Currently the county only apportions 6.7 percent of sales tax revenue back to towns and villages. This is much less than neighboring counties. Gromack said that in Westchester 20.6 percent is apportioned back to the smaller municipalities, while in Orange County it is fully 26.4 precent. Gromack said there are some small counties in which all sales tax revenues are kept by the county, but the only other highly populated county with such a low rate of return is Suffolk, and that is because the county pays for all police services in its boundaries.
Gromack said, “If the county would pay for our police costs, I’d be more than happy to allow them the entire sales tax revenue.” That, of course, is not the case in Clarkstown, where the police costs are a hefty $30+ million a year.
When asked for comment, County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef’s spokesman Ron Levine said he was not taking Gromack’s idea too seriously at this point. In his opinion, Gromack put the story out there so it would create a reaction in the local media.
Gromack said, “It is not just a Clarkstown battle, it’s all the towns and villages. This is the indignation of it all…all this new taxation and they are still cutting services and asking towns to pick up the costs.” Whether the city concept is a ploy to get concessions from the county by inflaming public opinion, or is a serious maneuver, remains to be seen, but Gromack’s move did not come out of nowhere. He was triggered by this year’s county budget which raises taxes on all Rocklanders, while saddling towns with additional expenses formerly covered by county government. Since Vanderhoef and the Rockland Legislature decided to shift these burdens onto the towns, Gromack decided to think outside the box.
According to Gromack, who ran for county executive and lost to Vanderhoef in 1997, there are numerous obscure costs that the county is forcing towns and villages to now pay. The more well known include costs for the Narcotics Task Force and Intelligence Units, but there are also new costs for board of election inspectors, and town and village health dept costs, among many others, he said.
Gromack believes his city idea “creates a conversation between towns and villages and the County of Rockland. The county needs to reinvent itself. They have a huge deficit, tax increases, new taxes. You can’t tax your way out of a problem and that’s what they are trying to do. They need to spend more time on how to downsize government and do it more efficiently. They can’t simply correct it by taxing more and by shifting the burden to towns and villages to pay for things they should be paying for”
Haverstraw Supervisor Howard Phillips talked about Gromack’s proposal on WRCR radio Wednesday morning. He was very worried that taxes would be increased on the rest of the county should Clarkstown become a city, but he said he understood where Supervisor Gromack is coming from because, as a fellow town executive, he shares his frustration with the county’s lack of sharing its sales tax revenue.
Phillips said the average giveback from the county to towns and villages in New York is 30 percent. He noted that he does not believe the Town of Haverstraw has a high enough population to become an officially incorporated city.
In order to become a city, Clarkstown would need to win approval from the New York State Legislature. There hasn’t been a new city charter in the state in over half a century. At this point Clarkstown is only in the preliminary study stages of any possible change in its status.
Gromack said the town’s study will take at least three months. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea or a bad idea, it’s an idea. It’s certainly worth studying. It makes sense for Clarkstown, we are the town with strongest economic base in county. We are the economic engine that produces sales tax for county.”