In this continuation of last week’s interview with Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr., he addresses small businesses on the East End, the area’s drug problem, this year’s budget, education, and more.
You are Chairman of the Small Business Committee. What can you tell us about that subject?
AFT: On the East End, all we have are small businesses. The schools and hospitals are our biggest employers. What we’re looking at are cost factors for small businesses. The governor proposes to reduce the tax on small businesses. I have a bill that would create a STAR Program for small businesses similar to the one we have for homeowners to reduce their property taxes. It is very difficult for small start-up businesses to get access to capital. We found that many of them are vulnerable to unregulated, on-line lenders who loan money at high interest rates and hard to meet payment schedules. We’re also looking at job training programs in cooperation with local community colleges and small businesses willing to take on apprentices. We are a real estate based economy driven by our proximity to Wall Street, but we can’t just be a second-home community. I put in a bill to help the next generation of farmers who went to college to study agriculture. We have a loan forgiveness program available for them but we only have twenty slots. I want to double that. Currently it only applies to undergraduates. I want to include graduate students as well. I am really enjoying my work on this committee to create jobs for the region.
This is a good lead into your role on the Education Committee.
AFT: I represent 21 school districts. One issue that they are dealing with is the 2 percent property tax cap or the rate of inflation, whichever is less. This year, fuel costs are down, but other expenses increased, such as healthcare. We can’t just depend on property taxes. Schools need state aid. The increase in the budget this year is less than 5 percent, not a lot in proportion to the need for quality education for our children. The Common Core curriculum, testing and teacher evaluations, have been put on hold by the Board of Regents for a couple of years. As far as Common Core is concerned, the Titanic had a better roll out. The Board of Regents didn’t get the input from the community that it should have. We have three vacancies on the Board which we have to fill.
Who fills the positions on the Board?
AFT: Each member of the Assembly and Senate has one vote and we cast our vote in a joint legislative session. Serving on the Board is a real job, and too often in the past, the process was too politicized. We need a better and more diverse membership.
You also serve on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
AFT: It’s a great committee to be on. It’s the most powerful committee in the legislature. We’re responsible for the preparation of the budget, and as Chairman of the Small Business Committee, my focus is on economic development. It’s an important position for my home base. I’m in a position to make sure that when it comes to allocation of funds for capital improvements, my district gets its fair share.
What is the status of this year’s budget?
AFT: We’re in the public hearing stage. Next the Assembly, Senate, and governor will list their priorities and meet in conference to work out the difference. Typically in any budget year, 95% of the budget is agreed upon. It’s that last 5% – school aid, capital funding, healthcare, which are the controversial issues. I think we’re in a good position. I have to give Governor Cuomo credit. We’ve had five consecutive years of on-time budgets. He has changed the culture as far as getting the budget done on time. In my early years in the legislature that was not the case. It’s also true that we have a good budget. We have a surplus. We’re not cutting programs. During the recession, we were just trying to keep the ship afloat. Now we can start to get things done, which I believe the governor is intending to do. I don’t always agree with him, nor does he with me. You know the old saying, if two people always agree, one isn’t thinking.
What do you see as a major problem that we are facing?
AFT: Drug addiction is a big problem. The use of heroin cuts across all levels of society. We’re not doing enough treatment and prevention. We are often left with unintended consequences of our good intentions. When we took steps to limit the use of prescription drugs that were habit forming, drug addicts turned to heroin. We can’t solve the problem without prevention. Addicts will find a way to feed the habit. That’s an issue we will have to face in the budget.
If I may, I have a few last questions that I would like you to address. What are the prospects for the STAR Program rebates being restored?
AFT: The rebate program was discontinued about six years ago by Governor Cuomo and replaced with other property tax programs like the 2 percent Cap and Tax Freeze Rebate Program. Senator LaValle and I have introduced legislation to restore the STAR Rebate, however the governor has showed little willingness to restore it.
Is the legislature considering an adjustment of the $1 million threshold for the “Mansion Tax?”
AFT: In the past, I sponsored legislation to repeal the tax. I also have a bill to exempt conservation organizations like the Peconic Land Trust from paying the tax when they purchase land for preservation. There has been little interest in Albany to revise the tax.
Author’s Note: The STAR Program (School Tax Relief) allows for a deduction from the school tax portion of the real estate taxes on a primary residence for homeowners whose household income does not exceed $500,000. It allows for a greater deduction from the school tax portion of the real estate taxes on a primary residence where at least one of its owners is at least 65-years-old and the household income does not exceed $84,500. These are the income limits currently in effect. The rebate was a payment received by homeowners in addition to the tax reduction.
The “Mansion Tax” applies to the purchase of property improved by residence of one, two, or three units, including condominiums and residential cooperatives. The tax is 1 percent of the total purchase price, if the price is $1 million or more. If it is a mixed commercial and residential property, and the purchase price is $1 million or more, the tax applies only to the value of the residential portion of the property.