4 LI school districts to challenge tax cap, lowest number ever

Students in a ninth grade algebra class on Students in a ninth grade algebra class on May 1, 2013, at Center Moriches High School. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

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Only four Long Island school districts are challenging state tax caps in their proposed 2014-15 budgets -- the lowest number ever -- with educators acknowledging that cap-busting efforts face growing obstacles.

Bridgehampton, East Hampton, Sayville and West Babylon are proposing cap overrides in spending plans going before voters May 20. Overrides require approval of at least 60 percent of residents casting ballots.

The question of whether to pierce local tax caps sparked debate locally as school boards reached final decisions last week on spending and tax plans. Saturday was the deadline for districts to submit proposed budgets to the state Department of Education.

In West Babylon, the board voted 7-1, with one member absent, on a $100.59 million budget carrying a tax levy increase of 3.61 percent. The district's cap is 1.36 percent.

James Bocca, 54, a veteran board trustee in West Babylon, warned colleagues about the risks of making the attempt. Two consecutive "no" votes would freeze taxes at the current level.

Bocca said the board should try to take into account opinions of the entire community -- not just statements of parents, teachers and others who appeared at meetings to push for higher taxes, saying they want to save junior high sports teams and other programs. "You're telling thousands of voters 'Yes, we're going to pierce the cap,' " said Bocca, who owns a landscaping business. "I believe we're making a mistake."

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Another board member, Peter Scarlatos, 45, stressed the importance of recognizing those who had spoken up publicly about preserving programs.

"We were put in office because of them," said Scarlatos, a retired firefighter. "We have to listen to them."

Under state law, caps are calculated starting with a base of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is lower. The inflation figure this year is 1.46 percent. Actual caps on increases in tax collections, known as levies, vary from district to district because certain expenses, such as voter-approved construction, are exempt.

Islandwide, the number of attempted cap piercings has dwindled steadily since 2012, the year the state's restrictions on property-tax hikes took effect.

Seventeen of Long Island's 124 districts attempted overrides in May 2012. Seven districts tried overrides last year. Most of those attempts have failed, forcing school officials to lower their spending plans and produce budgets with lower tax hikes for revotes in June.

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Last month, Albany ratcheted up pressure to curb property taxes. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed through legislation providing $375 million in election-year tax-rebate checks to homeowners whose school districts adhere to their caps. The state's Department of Taxation and Finance released details last week, indicating that rebates would virtually cover any tax hikes on homes in such districts.

That point has not been lost on local boards of education. East Quogue's board, which earlier considered a cap override, voted unanimously last week for a $22.8 million budget proposal that would raise the tax levy 1.41 percent. The district's cap is 1.43 percent.

Superintendent Les Black told applauding residents at the meeting that the decision to keep within the cap was due largely to extra state financial aid that lawmakers and the governor OK'd last month. Rebate checks were mentioned, too.

"It's actually a win-win, because we didn't pierce the cap, we kept all the programs, we kept all the teachers and staff and we are getting a rebate, too," said Mario Cardaci, the board president. "It's like a burden lifted off our backs."Generally, contractual pay raises for teachers and other district employees are smaller now than before the recession. But overall payroll increases have been large enough -- 3 percent to 4 percent in some instances -- that they are making it difficult for districts to curb taxes without increasing class sizes or reducing services.

The subject arose this month in Sayville, which has proposed a $90.95 million budget with a 2.99 percent tax hike. The district's cap is 1.22 percent.

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Superintendent Walter Schartner told an audience of about 300 that a cap override was essentially forced on his district by Albany. The schools chief noted that, though the state has boosted aid to Sayville and other districts over the past three years, it has never restored assistance fully to 2008-09 levels. "I'd like to explain how Albany plays a shell game to make increases out of decreases," Schartner said.

But several audience members objected to suggestions that state-aid limitations meant Sayville faced a choice between boosting taxes or eliminating classes in art, music and other electives.

"There would be no need for raising the cap if the salary increase had been, not cut, but just not as high," said Laura Valente, a mother of two teenage students.

The squeeze between tax caps and pay raises is exacting a human cost. East Hampton, for example, has proposed a $65 million budget that would raise taxes 2.43 percent while eliminating jobs of seven paraprofessional workers. The local cap is 1.46 percent.

John Prussack, 34, a school library aide, was among workers who appeared at a board meeting last week to protest their layoffs.

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Prussack acknowledged he might be recalled, but added, "Now I'm wondering, 'OK, if I get called back, what's going to happen next year?' It could happen all over again."

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