A Victory for Westchester

In 2009 the NYS Legislature passed the MTA Mobility or Payroll Tax on the businesses, municipalities, school districts, hospitals and not-for-profits in what is known as the Metropolitan Commuter Transit District (MCTD).  The MCTD is essentially the 12 county area covered by the MTA from Long Island to the Hudson Valley. This MTA “Bailout” Tax, as it has become known, imposed a $.34 tariff on every $100 of payroll in order to raise $1.5 billion annually for the MTA.

On August 22nd NYS Supreme Court Judge R. Bruce Cozzens Jr. ruled this tax as unconstitutional for violating the New York State Constitution. This was the result of a lawsuit brought on originally by Nassau County.

August 2010 Press Conference with Putnam County Legislator Vincent Tamagna at Cortlandt Train Station.

In August of 2010, as County Legislator, I spearheaded the effort to have Westchester County join the suit as Putnam County had recently done. On August 10, 2010 Putnam County Legislator Vincent Tamagna joined me in a press conference where I announced this initiative. My colleagues on the Westchester County Board of Legislators unanimously agreed with me and voted to direct the County Attorney to have Westchester join the suit. County Executive Astorino agreed and also directed the County Attorney to officially join Nassau’s suit. In the end Nassau, Suffolk, Putnam and Westchester Counties were plaintiffs in the lawsuit along with 17 villages and towns scattered across the Hudson Valley.

Why was this unfunded, unfair and unconstitutional tax mandate so devastating to the County of Westchester and why did the court rule as it did?

The MTA Tax raises $104 million from Westchester alone which represents about $109 dollars for every man, woman and child in the county. This also represents the highest amount per capita outside of Manhattan and equals the combined contributions of Bronx and King Counties, without their access to an extensive MTA subway and bus service.

With County Executive Astorino in October 2010 when he announced that Westchester County would be joining the Nassau lawsuit against the MTA Tax.

The $104 million is also in addition to the $165 million countywide already paid to the MTA via station maintenance fees and sales and use taxes. That means that the County of Westchester contributes over one quarter of a billion dollars to the MTA!

Tens of thousands of Connecticut residents utilize the MTA’s New Haven Line, accessing the rail service through Westchester, burdening our municipalities’ infrastructure and are not subject to this payroll tax!

Specifically, county government is forced to contribute $1.3 million a year to the MTA and since the tax has been imposed has contributed a total of $5 million. This on top of the $27 million in other fees we give annually to the MTA.

After weighing the facts of the case of how this tax came to be enacted, Judge Cozzens determined that the vote used to create the tax was not in compliance with the Constitution of the State of New York. The reason is that the state legislature violated the home rule provision required with this type of legislation. The MTA Tax is deemed a “special law” since it “does not serve the substantial state interest.” Which means that since this tax was to be imposed on only 12 of New York’s 62 counties it would require a home rule message from those affected. That was not done. Additionally, in the absence of a home rule message the law required a two-thirds vote of the entire NYS Legislature. This was not accomplished either. Since there were no Republican votes in either house for this law it only passed by 60% in the Assembly and 52% in the Senate, far short of the required two-thirds vote.

On August 23, 2012 I joined fellow state, county and local elected officials praising Judge Cozzen’s decision on the MTA Tax. While some State representatives fought this past year to obtain certain exemptions for the tax, its effect continues to thwart job growth and hurt businesses, organizations and municipalities throughout the state.  Striking down this debilitating tax in total is the only way to move forward.

As a result of this ruling we are also calling for the retroactive reimbursement for payments that have been made since this unconstitutional law was enacted.

Although the MTA has stated it will “vigorously appeal” the ruling we are confidant the NYS Constitution and the Judge Cozzen’s ruling will prevail.

About John G. Testa

Former District 1 County Legislator, John G. Testa is served five terms at the Westchester County Board of Legislators, spending the last 3 terms as BOL Minority Leader. John G. Testa is a lifelong resident of Peekskill who first entered elected public service as a member of the Peekskill Common Council in 1998 and then served three terms as Mayor. He previously served on the Conservation and Parks Advisory Board and Zoning Board of Appeals. John became an elected official eager to improve the City in which his family has lived for more than a century and quickly earned a reputation as a strong, independent, nonpartisan voice for fiscal responsibility. John received a BS degree in Technology from SUNY Oswego, where his academic achievements gained him induction into Epsilon Pi Tau, the International Honorary Fraternity of Technology. He earned his MS degree in Technology from the City College of New York. He began his teaching career in 1980 at Peekskill High School, his alma mater, as an instructor in Technology and Social Studies, retiring in 2013 after 33 years teaching. John has been a leader in support for the Arts Community in Westchester. He presided over the construction of the Peekskill Art Lofts, the establishment of the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, and the complete restoration of the Paramount Center for the Arts, originally a 1930’s movie house and helped bring critical funding to many Westchester programs. Legislator Testa received the “Advancing the Arts in Westchester Award” by ArtsWestchester. John has a been a leader on environmental issues for two decades and has a long record of initiatives he has supported and spearheaded. His active involvement in developing and promoting environmentally friendly policies began as mayor and continued throughout his time as Westchester County Legislator. His efforts consistently earned John the endorsement of the NY League of Conservation Voters. John’s most recognizable accomplishment has been his promotion and preservation of local history and historic landmarks, bringing an unprecedented focus on the region’s rich history, and its legacy of historic Victorian architecture. His roots in historical preservation stem from his experience as a Revolutionary War re-enactor and member of The Brigade of the American Revolution for 50 years. John was instrumental in securing the preservation of the Lincoln Depot, now the Lincoln Depot Museum, where he now serves as President. The museum was recognized in 2015 as one of The Best Museums in Westchester. He also secured the preservation of historic Fort Hill as parkland, a 40-acre parcel that was originally a Revolutionary War encampment site. Under his leadership, the United States Dept. of the Interior declared Peekskill a “Preserve America Community.” John was able to establish a record number of National Register designations of local structures, including the first Downtown and Neighborhood Historic Districts and supported the preservation of the historic Miller House in North White Plains. In 2017 John was named a “Champion of History” by the Lincoln Society in Peekskill. John and his wife of 37 years, Nancy, live in Peekskill and have two adult children, John, Jr. (fiancé Courtney Kelly) and Katy (husband Mike Mearon). John and Nancy recently welcomed the arrival of their first grandchild, Lacey Mae, in 2019.
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