The business community of Port Washington has banded together with their Manhasset colleagues to initiate a legal challenge to what they consider to be the unfair apportionment of school taxes. The coalition's primary complaint is that commercial properties pay a disproportionate share of real estate taxes compared to their actual percentage of assessed valuation within the school district. For example, in the school year of 2005/2006, commercial properties accounted for 11.6 percent of the school district's assessment yet paid 18.4 percent of the school district taxes.
A group of approximately two dozen businesses from both communities has formed to bring their charge of unfairness to the courts. The group is represented by Mr. Chris Murray, an attorney with the firm of Reisman, Perez and Reisman. Murray is reviewing a recent decision by the New York State Court of Appeals of a Rochester, NY, case which has many components similar to those on the Manhasset peninsula.
The litigation, which will challenge aspects of the Real Property Law, is expected to begin in several weeks in the New York State Supreme Court and should be resolved later this year. New York State classified property for purposes of school taxes into four categories: residential, condominiums, utilities and commercial. Murray recognizes the controversial nature of shifting tax burdens among these categories and believes the undertaking should be viewed by the local community as an appeal to fairness.
The group is headed by Mr. Aldo Calabrese of Port Washington. Calabrese said that the shifting usage of commercial property to residential has resulted in the remaining businesses having to bear the bulk of the payment of school taxes, which were formerly paid by the converted properties. Roy Smithheimer of the Port Washington Business Improvement District confirmed the reduction of business in Port Washington alone from 1,500 businesses in 2000 to 922 in 2006. In joining the lawsuit, Calabrese said the issue is affording the business community "a sense of fairness" in taxation policies.
Many Port business owners interviewed by Port Washington News were reluctant to comment publicly because of the controversial nature of rising school taxes and fear of offending Port residents. They spoke under the condition of anonymity of the general downturn of the salaries, fringes and pensions in the private sector affecting companies such as General Motors, Delta Airlines and Verizon. They asked, with so many others in the private sector facing these cutbacks, why teachers and other government employees continue to expect increases in those benefits year after year.
Others from the Port business community cited the unfairness of a law requiring remaining businesses to pick up the school tax burden left by businesses leaving Port. Given the current trend, they point out what they say is an absurdity of the law that infers, should only one business remain in Port, it would have to shoulder the entire school tax burden.
A business owner on Main Street said excessive taxation has resulted in the vacant stores on Main Street. He said these vacancies cause a deterioration of the quality of life in Port and as Main Street goes, so may the community. Others wondered if Port residents realized why there is an abundance of nail salons and pizza parlors. These types of businesses often have high profit margins and the ability to raise prices to stay in business. Business spokespersons also cautioned residents on business taxes. School taxes in some cases may be passed on to residents as rent increases or as higher prices for goods and services in Port. Some entrepreneurs cited the inequity of paying taxes to Port schools and other taxing authorities despite the fact that they may not live here to take advantage of the services offered.
Bill Solomon has been an owner and manager of a business in Port for over 25 years. Solomon questions the constant increases in taxes year after year and wonders why school and government officials simply expect taxpayers to pay more every year. He cited the unique nature of business where, to remain competitive, businesses cannot raise prices simply because taxes are increased. Many Port businesses have not survived and Solomon described the ever-increasing taxes as promoting a business climate that encourages existing businesses to leave and discourage new business from coming to Port.
Shifting land usage in Port has exacerbated the real estate tax dilemma. The Danaher property on Shore Road, which is being considered for conversion to parkland, had previously paid over $850,000 in taxes, which may be shifted to the business community. Port's evolution from commercial to residential in such areas as Mill Pond Acres, Fearon Marine and Thypin Steel may also shift additional tax burdens.
While most focus on the school tax as the major tax burden in Port, there are also the taxes of a number of independent taxing authorities bundled under the town tax bill. These authorities include the Nassau Police Headquarters, Water Pollution Control, Town Lighting District, Town Sidewalk District, Nassau Community College, Fire Prevention, Garbage District, Public Parking District, Highway District, Water, Police and Fire Districts. Debate is occurring at county and town levels to come to grips with the ever-increasing taxes leveled by these governmental bodies.
Mr. Aldo Calabrese, who heads the business coalition bringing the suit, is president of the North Hempstead Business Association (NHBA), which was formed in 1996 and today consists of approximately 250 members. NHBA was founded after a local controversy involving commercial traffic using Beacon Hill Road, and helped to reach an equitable compromise. Aldo Calabrese and his brother, Fernando, have a landscaping and masonry firm consisting of over a dozen employees and have been doing business in Port for 39 years. Calabrese said his membership senses an anti-business bias in North Hempstead and a town government more prone to help large businesses than smaller ones. Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman has appointed a Business and Tourism Committee of 14 members headed by Leslie Gross to review the problem. Calls by Port Washington News to Ms. Gross's office for this article were not returned.