Last Stand: Property tax reformers recruit Lander for trial

TENNY Policy Director Martha Star and New York City Comptroller Brad Lander (NYU Wagner, New York City Comptroller)

The past five years have been difficult for Tax Equity Now New York.

Since 2017, the group has been pursuing a legal challenge to overturn the city’s property tax system.

So far, no luck.

First, the city and state, both defendants in the lawsuit, won a court to dismiss the claim that the system violates the state constitution. TENNY appealed, only for the state’s highest court to refuse to hear the suit, ruling that it did not raise a “substantial constitutional issue”.

But TENNY had kept some powder dry. He returned to the lower courts with a new argument: that the system violates state and federal fair housing laws.

That too was shot down, but last month the group appealed, hoping the state’s highest court will agree the issue is crucial and the court must act, rather than leaving it to politicians to settle. the problem.

This is TENNY’s last fight. If the court says no, the group has no obvious place to go.

To bolster its chances of success, the group takes a new approach: imploring city officials who support the reform to endorse the lawsuit. His first target is a former affordable housing builder and longtime progressive, Brad Lander.

This month, TENNY policy director Martha Stark, a former city finance commissioner, wrote to the newly elected city comptroller, who had just released a declaration proof reforms proposed by the City’s Property Tax Commission. She began by applauding Lander for declaring the city’s property tax system “regressive and opaque and in need of reform in your first week as comptroller.”

“We know that having the greatest source of revenue for the city unfairly burdens working-class neighborhoods and communities of color is something you will not allow to continue,” Stark wrote. “By joining us, you can help address the glaring structural problems and racial injustices that permeate New York City’s property tax system.”

Among the commission’s recommendations were creating a tax class for owners of small homes and giving relief to those who earn less than $90,550 a year and whose property taxes are more than 10% of their income.

TENNY, who had gone through a draft report from the commission, didn’t have much love for the final version either. group spokesperson told Bloomberg that the recommendations “are basically the same as those issued by the Dinkins administration 30 years ago”.

The group expressed hope that Mayor Eric Adams could “pursue meaningful legislation” or “comply with any court orders”.

It is this latter goal that TENNY is aiming for and where the comptroller’s support would come into play. TENNY’s lawsuit is about accelerating reform rather than waiting for lawmakers to do something they have avoided for three decades. Stark said the court should also “provide guidance on priorities.”

A city official’s signature could interest the courts in suing TENNY, prompting him to take the case to the lower courts for argument.

“The Comptroller has a limited role in property tax policy, but joining the lawsuit will signal to the court the importance of the issue to the fiscal health and viability of the city,” Stark said.

But two weeks after the letter was sent, TENNY said the Comptroller has yet to respond.

Chloe Chik, Lander’s press secretary, said the comptroller looked forward to working with the group to deliver reforms and would “plan a follow-up conversation with TENNY about how best to support that goal.”

TENNY’s spokesperson said Thursday that Lander’s office had offered to meet with the coalition.

Whether Lander is legally able to join the lawsuit is another matter.

When five city council members tried in 2017 to file amicus briefs in support of TENNY’s lawsuit to “ensure a non-discriminatory tax system for their constituents,” a judge ruled that the city charter did not authorize city officials or agencies in their official capacity to hire outside counsel to represent them. Since the legal department was already representing the city, they were barred from joining.

A TENNY spokesperson acknowledged that Lander would likely not be able to join the lawsuit. But the group just wants him to publicly support its goal of legal intervention. Bill de Blasio, who once held the same seat on the Brooklyn City Council as Lander until this month, took the position as mayor that the court should leave reforms to lawmakers.

Mayor Eric Adams has pledged to build a “fairer system” and address inequities within the property tax system “in year one.” Bloomberg reported. He also expressed his support for TENNY. But a complete reform of the system can only be made by state legislation; Adams’ main role would be to defend that in Albany.

An Adams spokesperson said Bloomberg last month that “if the end product of this legal process is not sufficient, [the mayor] will take steps to further reform” the property tax system.

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