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Volume 6 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 73

Opinions of Counsel index

School districts (tax apportionment) (district partially within Westchester County) - Real Property Tax Law, § 1314; Westchester County Administrative Code, § 540:

Where a school district lies partially within and partially outside Westchester County, the aggregate inter-county school tax burden must be apportioned on the basis of State equalization rates. As to the intra-Westchester County share of the same school tax, the apportionment must be made utilizing the county equalization rates.

The Lakeland School District includes portions of towns in both Westchester and Putnam Counties. It is our understanding that, for several years, taxes have been apportioned in the following manner. First, State equalization rates are used to determine full value in each of the six towns in the district for purposes of apportioning the school taxes between the two counties. The State rates are also used to apportion the Putnam County share among the three towns in that county within the school district (namely, the towns of Carmel, Phillipstown and Putnam Valley). In Westchester County, however, the apportionment of the share to be raised for school taxes by the towns of Yorktown, Cortlandt and Somers is calculated by utilizing county rather than State equalization rates.

The rationale for this combined use of State and county rates is apparently an attempt to harmonize the otherwise conflicting provisions of section 1314 of the Real Property Tax Law and section 540 of the Westchester County Administrative Code. The former provides for the “equalization” of town and city assessment rolls of a school district located in more than one city or town by means of State equalization rates. In contrast, section 540 of the County Code provides as follows:

[In] the case of a school district lying in more than one town, the supervisors of the towns in which such school district lies shall apportion the school tax to the parts lying in their respective towns according to the full value of such property lying in each town, to be determined by the equalization rate for such town as fixed by the county board for the assessment roll upon which such school tax is to be extended. (emphasis added)

Since the Lakeland School District extends beyond Westchester County into Putnam County, the question is how the two sections of law just cited affect the apportionment of the District’s taxes. A brief history of the two statutes appears to be in order.

§ 1314-Real Property Tax Law

Section 1314 of the Real Property Tax Law is derived from former section 3505 of the Education Law (added by L.I 947, c.820). Section 3505, in turn, was derived from section 414 of the Education Law as consolidated in 1910 and as subsequently amended.

Section 414 of the Education Law of 1910 provided for “equalization” of assessment rolls in a multi-jurisdictional school district by the supervisors of the towns therein. By subdivision 1 of that section, the supervisors were charged with the duty to “inquire and determine whether the valuation of real property upon the several assessment rolls of said towns is substantially just as compared with each other.” If the rolls were found not relatively equal, the supervisors were bound to “determine the relative proportion of taxes that ought to be assessed upon the real property of the parts of such district lying in different towns . . .” (subd. 2).

This method of equalization was changed substantially by a 1921 amendment (L.1921, c.585) which shifted the equalization function to the State Tax Commission, requiring the use of the “rates of equalization fixed by the commission for the towns in which such district is situated....” The language of the 1921 enactment is substantially the same as that found in present subdivision 1 of section 1314 of the Real Property Tax Law, with the exception of references in the former to the assessment of personal property (which is no longer subject to a property tax in New York; see, L.1933, c.470, §1).

§ 540 - Westchester County Administrative Code

Section 540 was a part of the original enactment of the County Administrative Code in 1948 (L.1948, c.852). The Administrative Code itself was a compilation and re-enactment of a number of special laws applicable only to Westchester County, enacted at previous sessions of the State Legislature. For example, Article 16 of the Code, entitled “Westchester County Tax Law,” is derived from the County Tax Law of 1916 (L.1916, c.105), as amended. Further, the Tax Law of 1916 was, in part, derived from still earlier laws (e.g., L.1914, c.510).

Equalization, by county equalization rates, of assessment rolls upon which school taxes were to be extended, was only added to the County Tax Law in 1930 (L.1930, c.757). Prior thereto, the County Tax Law had provided that “[in] case of a school district lying in more than one township, the supervisors of the towns in which such school district lies shall apportion the school tax to the parts lying in their respective townships according to the assessed valuation thereof” (emphasis added; see, L.1914, c.510. Art. Ill, §3; L.1916, c.105, §16).

By the 1930 amendment, the reference to “assessed valuation thereof” was deleted and the language of current section 540 of the Code was added; i.e., requiring apportionment of the school tax according to full value, using county equalization rates to determine full valuation.

It is interesting to note that the only memorandum on this law in the Governor’s Bill Jacket suggests that the enactment of this measure would have little or no impact since county and State rates at the time were “in absolute agreement.” In a memorandum dated April 4, 1930, then Tax Commissioner Mark Graves pointed out to the Governor’s Counsel that while apportionment on the basis of full value was certainly an improvement over the county’s previous method of apportionment, i.e., wholly upon assessed value, this would, in fact, at Westchester County apart from all other counties in requiring use of county rather than State equalization rates. Nonetheless, Commissioner Graves had no objection to its passage, noting as follows:

It so happens that for several years the rates established by the Tax Commission for Westchester towns and by the Board of Supervisors of that county for such towns have been in absolute agreement. It is expected that the cordial relations existing between the State Tax Commission and the Westchester County Board will continue and that the rates will remain in agreement. If that does obtain, there can be no possible objection to this bill. Take it [sic] by and large, the Commission believes it should receive executive approval.

In retrospect, we now know that the anticipated continued agreement between State and county rates was an illusion, with the consequent shift in tax burdens created by using one type of rate rather than another. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the memorandum of Commissioner Graves or the available statutory history which would indicate an awareness on the part of anyone at that time of the potential for a county/State disagreement on equalization rates or of the effect such a happenstance would have on distribution of tax burdens on an inter-county school district.

Analysis

It should first be noted that no one statute addresses itself to this unique factual situation. The requirements of section 1314 are in substantial conflict with the provisions of section 540. In apportioning its taxes as outlined above, however, authorities of the Lakeland School District have apparently sought to comply with both sections of the law to the fullest extent possible.

This attempt by school officials to read seemingly inconsistent provisions of the law in a harmonious fashion is consonant with a rule of statutory construction associated with the phrase in pari materia. Translated literally, this phrase means “upon the same subject matter” (McKinney’s Statutes, §221a (1971)). It is applied particularly to statutes or general laws, usually enacted at different times but with reference to the same subject matter.

Statutes which are in pari materia are to be construed together as though forming part of the same statute and should, if possible, be given uniformity of application and construction and be applied harmoniously and consistently (id. §221b). Sections 1314 and 540 clearly relate to the same subject matter. The only way to read them harmoniously is to apportion the school taxes of the Lakeland School District in the manner previously described. To apportion by simply using State equalization rates would be to ignore the mandate of section 540. On the other hand, given the current difference in market value standards used by the State and the county in determining equalization rates, to apportion the inter-county share using State rates for the Putnam County towns and county rates for the Westchester towns would amount to a denial of equal protection of the laws and would contravene the general intent of section 1314.

Moreover, we must consider the proscriptions of section 611 of the County Administrative Code and section 2006 of the Real Property Tax Law. The former, part of the 1948 compilation of the Code (L.1948, c.852), provides:

Every provision of the general laws of the State of New York applicable to the county of Westchester shall prevail where no similar or comparable provision is made by or can fairly be inferred from this act or the county charter; but where inconsistent or conflicting with any provision of this act or the county charter shall be deemed superseded to the extent of such inconsistency or conflict. (emphasis added)

Thus, in enacting the County Administrative Code, the State Legislature specifically declared that Code to prevail over general State laws when a conflict arises, such as that between section 1314 of the Real Property Tax Law and section 540 of the County Code.

In a similar vein, section 2006 of the Real Property Tax Law (formerly §1606, as added by L.1958, c. 959, and renumbered by L.1973, c.39, §2) provides as follows:

This chapter shall not be deemed to repeal or otherwise affect the provisions of any special or local law or ordinance or of any county, city or village charter, or other special form of government, it being the intention of the legislature that the same shall continue in full force and effect until and unless otherwise duly amended, repealed or affected.

Quite clearly then, the recodification of the Real Property Tax Law in 1958 was not intended to supersede existing special or local laws.

Nonetheless, it is at least arguable that the drafters of the County Tax Law, and then the County Code, did not envision the possibility of the factual situation present here; that is, they acted on the erroneous assumption that State and county equalization rates would always be harmonious and that the use of county rates rather than State rates would cause little or no shift in tax burdens. This may be a basis for challenging the traditional method of apportioning Lakeland school taxes.

Two factors tend to undercut the strength of any such challenge, however. One is the fact that inter-county school districts (between Westchester and Putnam Counties) did exist prior to 1930 (the first time county equalization rates were to be used in Westchester). Second, it is a settled rule of statutory construction that the courts will not “upset” a well-known administrative interpretation of an ambiguous statute, if the Legislature itself has similarly restrained from reversing that interpretation.

If at the time county equalization rates were first used to apportion school taxes in Westchester, no school districts extended beyond that county’s borders, a strong case could be made for the proposition that section 540 was only intended to apply to districts wholly within that county’s borders. However, there is evidence to the contrary. In the Report of the Joint Legislative Committee on the State Education System (1947 Legislative Document No. 25) entitled Master Plan for School District Reorganization New York State, there is set forth a listing, by county, of all school districts then existing, the date on which they had become operative and how they would have been affected by proposed consolidations. The lists include school districts which extended beyond Westchester County prior to 1930. For example, the Shrub Oak Central School District No. 1 embraced three common school districts, two of which included towns in both Westchester and Putnam Counties and both of which operated prior to 1930 (see Master Plan, etc., p. 896). A second example is the North Salem Central School District which encompassed Union Free District No. 1, composed of the Towns of Somers and North Salem in Westchester County and Southeast and Carmel in Putnam County (see, id., p.892).

Finally, it is an axiom of statutory construction that a settled administrative interpretation of an ambiguous statute, undisturbed by any legislative pronouncements, will not be changed by the courts (see, Engle v. Talarico, 33 N.Y.2d 237, 306 N.E.2d 796, 351 N.Y.S.2d 677; but see, Matter of Hellerstein v. Assessor, Town of Islip, 37 N.Y.2d 1 at 9-10; 332 N.E.2d 279,371 N.Y.S.2d 388 at 395). That is, if the Legislature has seen fit to let stand an administrative interpretation of such a statute, so will the courts. Therefore, even if the argument could be made that section 540 of the County Administrative Code is ambiguous in its application to school districts not wholly within the county, a court might well find that the existing method of apportioning Lakeland school taxes constitutes a “well-known ... practical construction of a statute” and therefore binding on all concerned (in the absence of legislative enactments to the contrary).

In conclusion, we believe that the rule of statutory construction governing statutes in pari-materia, and the rule which constrains the courts from interfering with an accepted administrative interpretation of an ambiguous statute, would act as a bar to an attempt by any of the Westchester towns within the Lakeland School District to obtain a judicial change in the previously accepted practice of apportioning school taxes employing both State and county equalization rates.

August 9, 1978

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