By CARA MATTHEWS
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY - A report Thursday from the fiscally conservative Empire Center shows that New York's highest property-tax rates are in cities and rural areas with low property values, and the lowest are in resort communities and wealthy areas with high property values.
Median local and school property-tax rates in western New York and the Finger Lakes are the highest in the state at $34.93 and $33.96 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared to $28.50 per $1,000 in the Southern Tier and $24.11 in the Hudson Valley, the Empire Center found. The statewide median tax rate is $27.43.
The report "reinforces what we already knew -- that property taxes in New York are high," said Tim Hoefer, director of the Empire Center.
While the property-tax rates are higher upstate, the property values generally are much lower, so the total tax bill would be lower, he said. The highest median home sales value is in Westchester County at $630,000. The lowest is $53,000 in Allegany County. The median value in Monroe County is $125,000, $106,000 in Broome County and $270,000 in Dutchess County, the report said.
The organization released the study as people around the state prepare to vote on school budgets Tuesday. The average proposed spending increase is 1.3 percent, with an average hike in the tax levy of 3.4 percent, according to the state Education Department.
"I think this is information that taxpayers should definitely look at before they vote on their school budgets," Hoefer said.
Eighteen of the top 20 property-tax rates are in Allegany County, and the other two are in Wayne County, the Empire Center report said. The rate for Lyons, Wayne County, is $52.33 per $1,000 of assessed value, and it is $52.30 for Galen, Wayne County. The top rate is in Wellsville, Allegany County, at $62.20 per $1,000, more than double the median for the region.
As for the bottom 20 median property-tax rates in New York, most are in Suffolk County. Sagaponack, located in the Hamptons, has a total tax rate of $1.32 per $1,000. Eastchester, Westchester County, has a median rate of $6.16. The center's report also ranks the top 20 and bottom 20 tax rates by region, along with rankings for cities.
The Rye school district portion of the city of Rye, Westchester County, is the lowest-taxed area within cities, with a rate of $15.68 per $1,000, the Empire Center found. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fulton, Oswego County is the most heavily taxed city, with a rate of $51.14 per $1,000.
The Empire Center report does not include Nassau County and New York City because they have complex property-classification systems that can make total tax rates misleading, the report said.
Also Thursday, the Empire Center announced an online tool that allows people to learn and compare total school, municipal and county tax burdens in municipalities across the state. It allows people to look at property taxes on a very small scale and compare themselves to like communities, Hoefer said.
The $1.2 billion reduction in state education aid in 2011-12 is a major factor in school budgets, said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents. More than one-third of the roughly 700 districts in New York are proposing to cut their spending from last year, but 86 percent of them are still increasing their tax levies, he said.
Almost two-thirds of school districts are proposing spending hikes below 1.92 percent, the maximum allowed under a contingency budget, Lowry said.
The increase in pension and health-insurance costs alone would drive up education spending by 1.3 percent, so districts are cutting in other areas, he said.
As of April 29, the number of layoffs called for in school budget proposals was 13,500, not including New York City, according to New York State United Teachers union. The majority of the positions are teachers.
On Thursday, NYSUT released a radio ad campaign reminding New Yorkers to vote on their school budgets Tuesday. There are budget votes in every district except the "Big 5" - Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City.
More than 90 percent of school budgets in the state passed last year.
Lowry said he wouldn't be surprised if the pass rate was lower this year due to people voting no because they oppose budget cuts.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week that he rejects the notion that it's necessary to spend more money to get better results. The school population has decreased by 4 percent in recent years, but the cost of education has gone up more than 20 percent, and the number of teachers has increased 10 percent, he said.
"You have bloated the front office. That's what this is about: a bloated management, a bloated bureaucracy of supervisors - not teachers," he said.