Friday, 11 May 2012 00:00
When Governor Cuomo signed New York’s first property tax cap in June 2011, it came as welcome relief for thousands of voters in Nassau County, which according to Forbes, has the highest property taxes in the state and the fourth highest property tax rates in the entire nation. The tax cap placed a 2 percent limit on how much property tax would be allowed to increase (up to 2.2 without achieving a supermajority on budget vote) and although the plan would not go into effect until the 2012-2013 school year, the consensus among some voters, was that it was well worth the wait. I say some voters, because as the reality of the situation began to sink in, others took a more critical and realistic look at the long-term effect this could have on school districts, towns and villages.
State aid to school districts has been steadily decreasing every year, and at the same time this announcement was made, Cuomo signaled his intension to reduce aid by 1.5 billion statewide, translating in an average reduction of 9 percent statewide and 11 percent among Long Island school districts. This comes despite the fact that the average district in New York State usually receives approximately 35 percent of its funding from state aid, and at a time when declining home values have reduced local tax bases. It is against this background that school districts, including Westbury, are challenged to stay within these guidelines, because this is what the public expects, and any deviation, however slight, could result in failed budgets at the polls.
Westbury school board has been deliberating the budget process since December, examining various options and sharing them with the public at various venues in the community. It seems as if the board was leaning toward settling on a 2.48 percent increase, and perhaps this was what triggered a “vote no” effort by members of the community, as expressed in letters published in The Westbury Times. But a $600,000 additional funding from the state was put toward the budget, thereby lowering it to a to 2 percent tax levy increase – a total adopted budget of $111,754,933 (a 2.61 budget-to-budget increase). Perhaps this is more palatable to everyone, as the next suggested option, zero increase, carries its own set of consequences; in fact this will be the case if the budget fails twice at the polls.
The reality is that the tax cap is progressive, and if school districts continue to draw from their fund balance without additional funding from the state, especially if the traditional tax bases continue to erode, the impact will continue to be felt. It is precisely for this reason why the village trustees voted on a resolution at a public hearing back in January (to exercise the authority under Municipal Law section 3) that will allow them to override this restriction if it becomes necessary. The equivalent option available to the school district is to achieve a supermajority of 60.1 percent at the polls, an eventuality that in my opinion is highly unlikely.
The average increase in school tax levies across Long Island is 2.6 percent. Of the 56 school districts in Nassau County, Westbury and Seaford share the unenviable distinction of currently operating on austerity budgets. Over the next few months, Westbury will begin the process of conducting a national search for a new superintendent. If the budget fails at the polls, it is against this background that we will be conducting this search; a school district that is in its second year of austerity, and can’t even pass a budget even while operating within the suggested limits.
On May 15, in addition to the budget vote, voters in this community will also be voting for four candidates seeking to fill two seats on the school board; two incumbents, two newcomers. The victors will be members of the board that will be involved in the process of selecting the new superintendent. I believe the voting public has the right to know whether or not each of these candidates supports the budget, and the reasons for or against.