Critics: Tax cap will hurt poor districts

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference on property tax cap legislation at the Capitol in Albany. (May 24, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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Long Island's poorer school districts will find it harder to keep up with wealthy ones under a 2 percent tax cap unless they get financial relief from Albany, education advocates said Tuesday.

It's a simple matter of dollars and cents, they say: Districts with shopping centers and other extensive taxable properties can raise far more revenue under a 2 percent annual limit on tax increases than districts with less property wealth.

The problem is only compounded when Albany cuts districts' financial aid, as it did in March, advocates add. Poor districts lost a bigger share of their revenue than rich ones as a result of the $206 million in Islandwide cuts, because they were more dependent on state aid in the first place.

"Poorer districts can't continue to endure freezes or reductions in aid, as they have over the last three years," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, a regional agency that includes many such districts among those it serves. "In conjunction with passing a cap, I think the State Legislature needs to address the needs of our low-wealth districts where state aid is concerned."

The push for a statewide tax cap took another step forward Tuesday, when the Assembly's Democratic leaders unveiled their plan for a 2 percent annual cap. That plan would provide more exemptions than a measure already approved by the Republican-led Senate.

Both the Assembly and Senate versions would allow larger tax hikes when such increases are approved by 60 percent or more of local voters. Lawmakers who favor a cap note that many Island districts already muster that level of support.

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In last week's school elections, for example, 82 of 124 districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties passed budgets by margins of 60 percent or better. And 68 of those 82 districts project tax increases next year of more than 2 percent.

Other supporters say the need for a cap is underlined by the Island's growing tax burden. Recent analysis by the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., ranked Nassau No. 1 among counties nationwide in median home property taxes, while Suffolk ranked 12th.

Richard Bivone, an East Meadow business owner and Nassau chairman of the Long Island Business Council, Tuesday welcomed the actions taken by legislators.

"We are beyond the point of urgency," Bivone said. "We need a tax cap, and it needs to be done quickly and right to plug the hole of businesses leaving New York."

Andrea Vecchio, an East Islip taxpayer activist, added that disadvantages faced by poorer districts could be alleviated if tax revenue from commercial properties were distributed to districts on a countywide basis -- a form of consolidation long favored by some analysts.

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"That would fix the problem in an instant," she said.

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