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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Perspective

Before we follow the advice of some politicians and pundits and launch a war on our public schools and the people who work in them, let’s pause to consider the reality on the ground.

As of mid-2008, just as the financial crisis was kicking in full force, Nassau County residents were spending $4.78 billion to operate their public school systems, $3.58 billion of which was raised through local property taxes. These are big, scary numbers. Let’s burn down the schools.

But, wait. Nassau residents were paying $2.37 billion in property taxes, sales taxes, fees and other locally-generated revenues to keep the county government operating (plus $425 million from the state and federal governments). And that’s just for operating expenses; the county carries more than one billion American dollars in annual debt service (principal and interest on long-term loans).

New York has 57 counties outside of New York City, and 66 percent of the $1.8 billion borrowed by those counties in Fiscal Year 2008 was borrowed by Nassau County, in order to pay for its operations and obligations. The total debt carried by the county now totals $3.6 billion according to the latest published state estimates. I know that we’re not supposed to talk about that, because it’s our secret little gift to the children and grandchildren we all supposedly want to make Long Island home. But it does have to be repaid, even if it’s only $300 million each year, and growing, until the end of time as we know it.

Suddenly, the school burden takes on a bit of a different perspective.

If you add up the property taxes, sales taxes, user fees and other revenues Nassau County residents pay to run their county, cities, towns, villages and special taxing districts of all varieties, it adds up to $4.03 billion (plus $576 million from the state and the feds). Only $1.92 billion of that comes through property taxes, because the other governments, particularly the county, have more options in how they raise revenues. These range from water district usage fees to more than $1.05 billion in sales tax revenues. Public schools make some money on Adult Education fees, renting space and such, but 93 percent of locally-generated school revenues in Nassau County come from the property tax.

There are still places schools can increase efficiency and institute savings, and I intend to write more about that. But keep in mind that between 1998 and 2008, rises in salaries of teachers, guidance counselors, teacher aides and other education personnel in Nassau County have risen at almost exactly the same percentage as in the rest of New York. Meanwhile, the cost to Nassau County school districts of retirement, worker compensation and other benefits rose from $340.5 million to $855.3 million. Medical insurance costs alone increased from 6.3 cents on each dollar spent on education to 8.3 cents. Transportation costs more than doubled and retirement system fees increased almost five times over. During that 10-year period, enrollment in the public schools increased from 191,000 to 206,000. All in all, the schools have dealt with a lot of things, without a lot of revenue options.

What is driving up property taxes is the property tax, which was designed for a stable, non-inflationary rural economy where the mere fact of owning land represented the ability to generate personal income. You could buy pretty good Long Island farmland for $200 to $250 an acre in 1840, in 1870 and in 1900. Today, $250 will buy you a really nice bush at the garden center. But the property tax remains the primary means of funding our largest local public enterprise.

Republicans and Democrats in places as different as rural Texas and Ann Arbor, Michigan are creating movements to reduce or phase out property taxes in an attempt to keep families from living out of their cars. Not here. Why are we encouraged to look one way and not the other? Why are school children being targeted?

Pick on someone your own size, buddy.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. He lives in New Hyde Park.

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