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Opinion

It's school budget time again and - like the jonquils and croci of spring - those opposed to higher taxes and those determined to maintain present service levels in Farmingdale are at each other's throats again.

I hate to sound cynical, but I have seen this budget kabuki theater unfold with great regularity over the years, usually to little result. No, the community can't afford a huge tax hike and, no, the class size is not going to be dropped - despite the obvious educational benefits. But between these two extremes is where most budgets wind up. And, with a couple of exceptions, those are the types of budgets the community has supported.

But this year is not like every other year in a number of significant ways. First, our community is pretty much fully developed. We can't count on a large business or huge housing development to improve our tax base and take some of the load off of the rest of us. For better or for worse, it is fairly stable.

Second, the national and regional economies are not rapidly expanding as they were in the go-go '90s. That means New York State, which many look to for support of education, is going to be strapped for funds for the near future as well. And most of what little discretionary education funds that are available will probably be used to beef up New York City schools as required in a recent court order.

So these are relatively tough times for our schools. But, remember this: there are good times and there are bad times but for kids there is only one time. Your child only goes through school once, only gets one chance at a good education. And nobody wants to look back in 10 or 20 years and say, "I could have been smarter, or at least better educated, but the schools were having a tough time when I was going through and, well...."

What's a body to do? It has been obvious for some time that the property tax is simply inadequate for the task that we have assigned to it. As I mentioned above, Farmingdale is fairly stable. That means no hoards of new children, but also an aging population, less able to shoulder yearly increase in property taxes with their limited incomes.

Since I have just about reached that august status myself, I know a lot of older residents. Not one of them likes it when taxes go up. Yet many of these same grandparents understand very well the value that good schools and good educations bring to a community. They know that good schools increase property values that they can tap to live on or to bequeath to their children. They know that good schools provide for economic growth that helps to spread out the tax burden. They know that good schools make for a better society.

But they also know that the property tax is a regressive tax that does not take into account the ability of a homeowner or business to pay. Its chief value is its collectibility. People will beg, borrow or steal to keep their roof over their heads. (Well, not really steal in Farmingdale, but you get the point.)

Perhaps it is finally time to give serious thought to using a progressive income tax to pay for all or part of the cost of education. It's very collectible. It grows without frequent increases in tax rates. It roughly approximates the ability of people to pay and it can easily be tweaked to give consideration to specific groups (such as parents and seniors).

This is just an idea. Brighter bulbs than I will have to work out the details. But we need to start talking, and doing it quickly, if we are to assure that "the one time" your child or grandchild gets in school does not depend on good times or bad times.


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