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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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Backwards and Upside Down

We can always learn to live with change, adjust to new circumstances, figure out more efficient ways to do things. That’s not what is happening in New York. There is no real Plan B or Plan C. We’re going to white knuckle everything.

Long Island’s schools are “the driving force behind this region’s economic vitality and attractiveness to business.” I stole that line from the Long Island Association, the region’s premier business organization, quoted in a recent L.I. Index report. So we have to get this right. And we’re not.

A cap on property tax increases for schools and local governments is apparently coming. As of this writing, it looks like there will be a cap of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. Some raises in expenditures will be exempt, and school districts can have higher budget increases with a 60 percent approval by voters.

The part that I dread the most is that for the next few years we will hear politicians braying about how they’ve solved the property tax problem, reined in taxes, made a big step forward to fix taxes. Two-thirds of Nassau County’s school districts would have come in below the cap if it had been applied to the recent budget elections. This is not relief. This is not reform. This is pretend. This is locking us into a system again that is backwards and upside down, in which tax rates are highest in the neediest districts and lowest in the high-wealth districts, and in which personal circumstances play no role.

So we can all start planning, the budgets of these Nassau districts have been passed by an average of 60 percent or more on the first try across the past ten school budget elections: Bethpage, Carle Place, East Williston, Elmont, Glen Cove, Great Neck, Island Trees, Jericho, Long Beach, Lynbrook, Merrick, North Bellmore, North Merrick, North Shore, Plainview-Old Bethpage, Roslyn, Syosset, Uniondale, Valley Stream 24 and 30. In addition, Amityville, Baldwin, Bellmore-Merrick, East Meadow and Island Park missed this list by less than a percentage point.

Great Neck’s budget averaged 78.1 percent over the last 10 years. Westbury averaged 49.7 percent. Westbury’s budget was defeated on the first try six times over 10 years.

When push comes to shove, some districts will have options. Some districts will begin to pull away. Residents in some districts, a few years out, just may begin receiving shiny, mysteriously-funded mailings touting the benefits of charter schools.

“The Nassau-Suffolk School Board Association took exception yesterday to a statement by Governor Rockefeller that local school boards lacked the courage to levy needed school taxes.” That’s from an article in The New York Times (February 18, 1960). This is how a previous generation talked about their responsibilities to each other and to those who would come next. Governor Rockefeller was pressing hard for his plan to allow school districts to adopt alternatives to real property taxes.

Over the last decade, median household incomes in the U.S. fell $5,261 in real (inflation adjusted) dollars.

Also at that moment, the number of U.S. households with $1 million in taxable income (adjusted for inflation) was 15,000, and Americans with $1 million in income paid 43.1 percent in federal taxes. Today, 361,000 households have $1 million in taxable income, and they will pay 23.1 percent in federal taxes.

Fifty years ago, corporations paid 47.4 percent of their profits in income taxes, and the U.S. was the manufacturing, commercial and economic powerhouse of the world. In 2011, corporations pay 11.1 percent of their profits in income taxes.

But our problems are caused by crossing guards and cafeteria workers, we are told.

“Nassau County Democrats proposed this week that counties throughout the state be given the option of levying up to a 20 per cent surtax on state income and business taxes for the purpose of lowering educationl costs.” That’s from The New York Times (March 21, 1971). The press conference featured party leaders, elected officials and candidates. That 20 percent surtax (2 percentage points) is the same amount Governor Cuomo and the legislature will be reducing the taxes on high-income earners beginning on January 1, 2012.

Backwards and upside down.


Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: