Chautauqua County coalition assails local taxes - with promising results

By Pamela Lydic

When New York State business owners talk about reducing local tax burdens, optimism is often an early casualty. Cutting taxes, some say, will be a long, tedious process. An unsuccessful one, others add. Some shrug and say, "Just leave New York-because things will never get better here."

In Chautauqua County, business leaders for the last two years have been emphatically rejecting fatalism and pessimism in favor of a new, coordinated grass-roots initiative-with promising results. Advocates of prosperity across New York should know about this effort.

Two years ago, the county's five largest business groups decided it was time to act. We had compared our property taxes to those in Erie County, Pennsylvania, a neighboring county with similar assets in attracting business. We were discouraged to learn that property tax burdens were typically 25 to 35 percent higher here in New York.

These groups formed the Chautauqua County Business Council (CCBC), keeping their individual identities but jointly pursuing property tax restraint. Akey tactic, CCBC decided, would be involving all taxpayers-homeowners and businesses of all sizes.

The campaign began in earnest just before the November 1997 election. The CCBC hired a firm to assess public opinion on property taxes, to identify voters' "hot buttons" related to taxation, and to gauge shifts in public opinion as our campaign unfolded. CCBC hired a campaign manager to develop literature and advertising materials, to train coordinators and volunteers, and to coordinate the public campaign.

Support for tax reduction was strong, and the CCBC began receiving donations from many businesses and one private foundation.

With this support, we developed and mailed to local taxpayers literature comparing our property taxes to other areas' and outlining the case for cuts. These mailings included a form that property owners could complete and return if they were interested in future mailings and meetings or in participating in the campaign.

The CCBC formed a speakers' bureau to take the case for cuts to service clubs and civic groups. It also conducted a forum and reception for municipal leaders at which we made the case for tax cuts and offered to collaborate with government officials on the effort. Notably, this event was cosponsored by the county executive.

The CCBC is also partnering with higher education. SUNY-Fredonia has established a Center on Regionalism to study how local governments can maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of services-and make tax cuts possible.

One encouraging result is more calls to county elected officials from all kinds of individual and business property-owners, urging them to find ways to reduce property taxes. To their credit, officials have responded with a new county charter that will streamline government and position the county for a new future.

The CCBC also helped sponsor a workshop on performance-based government with the former city manager of Sunnyvale, California, which has increased productivity by 40 percent, cut costs by 38 percent, and earned a 90 percent public approval rating. This is heady stuff-and we in Chautauqua County hope to do better.

After two years, we see signs of progress. We think our campaign convinced many municipalities to hold the line on property taxes last year. Afew have even lowered them-and we're optimistic that our ongoing efforts will mean further cuts.

The campaign has produced some welcome, if unexpected, sideeffects. The five founding business groups have seen many benefits in collaborating, and new, stronger partnerships are evolving as a result. This will further strengthen our advocacy for a competitive business climate in Chautauqua County.

Perhaps most importantly, our county executive and other government officials have embraced their newly strengthened partnership with the business community. We are optimistic about reporting even more progress in the future.

Pamela Lydic is executive vice president of the Northern Chautauqua Chamber of Commerce. She can be reached at 1-716/366-6200.

August 20, 1998