Ron Friedman, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and superintendent of the Great Neck School District, believes school districts shouldn't have to pay for the MTA's mismanagement.
With a $1.2 billion deficit looming for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), lawmakers are negotiating ways to close the budget gap for 2009. There have been proposals for fare increases of up to 27 percent as well as a new payroll tax that would be imposed on all employers including school districts.
A proposal for hefty fare hikes and cuts in service including the elimination of weekend service from the West Hempstead LIRR station as well as elimination of train service to Belmont Park with the exception of the day of the Belmont Stakes has been discussed.
The fare hikes would bring in additional revenue to the beleaguered agency at the expense of commuters who already pay high fares for service on the Long Island Rail Road.
For example, monthly ticket from LIRR Zone #4, which includes stations at Bellerose, Floral Park, Stewart Manor, Lakeview, Hempstead Gardens, West Hempstead, Mineola, Floral Park, New Hyde Park and Merillon Avenue, to Penn Station currently costs $185. The fare would be raised to $235, an increase of 27 percent. Subway fares would increase from $2 to $2.50.
In order to explore ways to close the MTA's budget deficit, Governor David Paterson appointed the Ravitch Commission to look at strategies to fund the MTA's capital projects and operating needs.
The Ravitch Commission report states that, "Among the many revenue options considered, the Commission views a regional Mobility Tax as the fairest feasible way to spread the burden of financing the capital needs of our regional transit services to those businesses and organizations that most directly benefit from it. An excise tax equal to one-third of one percent of wages paid (as measured by the current FICA tax base) would be imposed on all employers within the region and would represent a deductible expense for federal tax purposes. The Mobility Tax would also be imposed on self-employed individuals. The imposition of this tax is expected to raise $1.5 billion annually."
The Mobility Tax would be imposed on employers who would pay 33 cents per $100 of their payroll to fund the MTA.
The Senate Democratic Majority has introduced a plan to address the MTA's budget shortfall that includes a payroll tax of 25 cents per $100 of payroll as well as a reduced fare increase of 4 percent for MTA, LIRR, and Metro-North. "Particularly during these times of severe economic distress, it was absolutely essential that we protect working families' access to an affordable and reliable means of mass transit with an MTA recovery plan that minimizes fare hikes and prevents the loss of services and jobs," said Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A. Smith.
Senator Craig Johnson, who represents Elmont and Franklin Square in the 7th Senate District, is a member of the Democratic majority and supports the Senate majority's plan. "The Senate Majority Conference unveiled a proposal that fully restores potential service cuts, reduces potential fare increases and saves property values that would be adversely impacted by the cuts in service proposed in the MTA's 'Doomsday' budget. This is a bad situation that has been caused by mismanagement and an out-of-control debt load that occurred under previous administrations and legislative majorities," said Johnson "We are sensitive to the plan's potential impacts, especially on schools, and we are looking to do everything we can to mitigate its effects on a school district - which has been calculated to cost one-seventh of one percent of a school district's budget, or approximately $20 per household per year. If no resolution is reached, the effects of the Doomsday budget will be far reaching. For instance, the cost of a monthly peak train ticket to New York will increase by more than 25 percent. It's our goal to prevent such massive hikes as well as thwart the elimination of weekend service on the West Hempstead line, off-peak half-hour service reductions on the Port Washington line and the elimination of six Long Island bus lines and reduced service to eight others."
However, some taxpayers and educators believe that school districts, which are among the largest employers on Long Island, shouldn't be used to balance the MTA's budget.
"Don't balance the MTA budget on the backs of our children," said Karen Lessler, board of education president of the Middle Country Central School District, at a recent rally held at Newfield High School in Selden. "Stop this approach that mismanaged agencies are entitled to bailouts. We are not the MTA's ATM."
Ron Friedman, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents and superintendent of the Great Neck School District, believes asking employers such as school districts to pay for the mismanagement of the MTA is out of line. "We're robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said, noting that school districts are beholden to taxpayers while agencies such as the MTA are not.
Some also feel that those who do not use the MTA services shouldn't be forced to pay for them. Republican Senator John Flanagan, who represents the 2nd Senate District, said none of the Long Island Republican senators would be voting to approve a payroll tax. He pointed out that the tax takes something away from school districts without giving them anything in return. "The MTA needs to do a better job controlling its expenses before going to the taxpayers to bail them out," he said.
The Sewanhaka Central High School District had a payroll of $82,115,430 in 2007-2008. A .25 percent payroll tax on Sewanhaka's payroll would amount to over $205,000 that would have to be budgeted for in the Sewanhaka budget; for the Elmont School District, it would be over $96,000 (based on a 2007-2008 payroll of $38,711,235); for the Franklin Square School District, it would be over $45,000 (based on a 2007-2008 payroll of $18,007,486); for the West Hempstead School District, it would be over $64,000 (based on a 2007-2008 payroll of $25,853,117).