Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

County Taxes Are a Bargain For Many

By Cynthia Van Ness, © 2005

Originally published in the Buffalo News, June 22, 2005, p. A-22

There in the mail was the dreaded receipt for my Erie County property taxes, paid through my mortgage escrow. I wanted to postpone the inevitable, but I was in a good mood. Maybe I'd be better off making a good mood bad than a bad mood worse. So I opened the envelope.

Our county property tax bill for 2005 was just under $600. I was shocked -- to borrow a line from Casablanca. How can this be? I tried to find the median property assessment in Erie County to see how typical my tax bill was, but have not yet found it in the minutiae of the 2000 census housing data. My house is of middling value, so maybe thousands of county residents have comparable tax bills. I divided $600 by 365 and discovered that my husband and I each pay about 85 cents a day in county taxes, or just under $1.70 per day for our household. Now you see why I was so stunned. This is what a cup of coffee costs.

This is driving people and businesses away? This is what spawned a supposed tax revolt, angry letters to the editor, relentless radio talk show vitriol, a rash of calls to real estate agents and a thousand online rants? According to some things I've heard and read, it's destroying everything we hold dear, including our chances for economic recovery, and has plagued us with everything except swarms of locusts.

Wow. Did I accidentally get undercharged by a factor of five or 10? Do I really owe $3,000 or $6,000 instead? If so, then I'd share the outrage.

My suburban friends remind me that on top of their county property taxes are local school taxes. Admittedly, I live in Buffalo where there is no additional school tax. But isn't that why they chose the suburbs in the first place? Because they wanted good schools for their kids?

Less than a dollar a day buys me the one local hospital with a trauma unit that can save my life if I'm seriously injured. It buys me a multimillion-volume library system with one of the best 19th century and rare book collections of any public library in the country. It buys me parks, county road maintenance, sheriffs, courts and a historic zoo.

It buys me a humane prison for offenders, a decent nursing home for the indigent elderly (which could be you or me someday), a health department to ensure that the restaurants I patronize don't poison me and a community college that prepares my neighbors, some of whom would otherwise be on public assistance, for essential jobs. It manages to do all of this on top of providing costly Medicaid for my neighbors who lack the health insurance that I enjoy.

At the risk of sounding clueless or perverse, $600 a year is a bargain. For less than your daily mug of mocha latte, Erie County has effective, highly developed, vital services that Third World nations would kill for. If everything Erie County was responsible for evaporated tomorrow and we had to re-create all of it from scratch -- the systems, the services, the expertise, the facilities and the equipment -- I guarantee you it would cost well over $1.70 per household per day.

If you had another 85 cents a day, how would it fix what ails us? Most of us would just have another cup of joe, which gets us a caffeine buzz but little economic growth, except for maybe Spot Coffee. I beg my tax-revolting neighbors to be careful what they wish for. They might get it.