Many Long Island homeowners could see school taxes rise well beyond the state's 2 percent cap next year, education leaders warned Saturday.
Though districts have not set next year's tax rates, experts say school expenses exempted from the cap could produce higher-than-expected tax hikes. Exempted costs include increases in district contributions to employee pensions, and interest payments for voter-approved construction borrowing.
"What we're finding is that the cap works out to between 2 and 3 percent for many districts," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES and a leading regional analyst.
Bixhorn spoke before a regional breakfast meeting of more than 200 school administrators, lawmakers and others in Middle Island.
New York State adopted its tax cap in July -- a major victory for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who had campaigned on the issue the previous fall. The cap applies to local tax levies, the total amounts collected through property taxes.
Campaign promises of a 2 percent cap stuck in the public's mind, though Cuomo said from the outset that certain expenses would be excluded. Education officials say this poses a potential credibility problem in dealings with local homeowners.
"If they get anything on their tax bill over 2 percent, they're going to think you lied to them," said David Little, governmental relations director for the New York State School Boards Association.
In response, some local school officials at the forum told a reporter they would probably hold tax increases to 2 percent, even if they'd legally be entitled to more. Districts will release proposed budget and tax figures next month, then hold votes in May.
Schools account for about two-thirds of property taxes.
Even if tax-levy increases are held to 2 percent, complexities in regional property assessments could drive taxes on some homes far higher. Such cases are especially common in Nassau County, where assessments on many homes and commercial properties have declined rapidly in recent years, forcing owners of other properties to pick up the difference through tax hikes often exceeding 10 percent.
Forum participants generally praised Cuomo for pushing an $805 million statewide increase in school aid next year. However, some said the Democratic governor's plan to set aside $250 million of that as competitive grants to districts that raise student achievement or operate more efficiently would deprive other districts of money needed to curb taxes.
"I do not believe it's appropriate to guarantee in advance that some of our kids in some districts are going to lose," said Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket).
David Wakelyn, the governor's deputy secretary for education, disagreed, noting that virtually all the state's $20.3 billion in aid is distributed by formula, and contended that some money should be used to spur innovation.