Friday, 18 February 2011 00:00
The argument has long been made that one way to relieve Nassau County of the dubious distinction of having the second highest property taxes in the nation is to consolidate some of the special taxing districts that dot our towns and villages into county or town-wide entities. Special fire, sewer, sanitation, parks and other districts are all taxing entities, and it is probably worth the while to take a critical look at what benefits can be gained from merging services where it seems reasonable and act accordingly in the interest of the taxpayer.
A convergence of factors including an aging population, a decline in the ranks of young adults (they can’t afford to live here) and the financial effects of the recession on families and municipalities has breathe new life into the discussion as people explore ways to relieve some of the financial burdens that impact their lives. The impact of these factors on school districts cannot be ignored, especially in light of Gov. Cuomo’s proposal of $1.5 billion in school-aid cuts statewide; an 11 percent reduction in aid to Long Island school districts, along with his proposed state-wide tax cap scheduled to take effect in the 2012-13 school year. Under this proposal school districts will not be able to increase their annual tax levy by more than two percent annually, or by the inflation rate, whichever is lower. However, since this proposal is not scheduled to go into effect until the 2012-2013 school year, it will be interesting see what will happen with this year’s budget vote since school districts will be faced with the option of either increasing property taxes or cut programs.
It is in this light that the consolidation discussion is once again being actively discussed with regards to school districts; not so much in terms of physical merging of districts, but along the lines of examining ways in which business can be done collectively thereby resulting in savings to the taxpayer. In fact this seems to be such a viable option that at the December 2010 meeting of the New York State Board of Regents, a proposal was made to create a panel to review the benefits or pitfalls of school district consolidation. Furthermore, in defending his action to cut aid to the tune of almost $250 million to Long Island schools, Gov. Cuomo made a number of coping suggestions including consolidation, utilizing reserve funds and pay freeze.
Consolidation is a well-sung song that gets real loud every now and then, but the fact is that it has never really resonated with the public, or spent any appreciable time on the hit parade. This might be for a number of reasons; in the case of school districts, I believe that most districts wish to retain their identity – people cherish their neighborhood schools. The playing field for school districts is also not a level one; an interesting paradox is that school districts all over Nassau County including Mineola, Carle Place, Jericho, Merrick, New Hyde Park et al, have been experiencing a steady decline in elementary enrollment – a trend that began five years ago (according to the U.S. Census data) to the extent that some school districts are considering shuttering schools with low enrollment. Westbury on the other hand is one of few school districts that actually experience increased enrollment within the past few years. But Westbury’s uniqueness as a school district – a low-wealth, high-tax district, (no commercial tax base) with the highest concentration of English Language Learners and high needs students in the county, does not necessarily make it an attractive candidate for consolidation; it might well be the best argument for making the case.