The cap on the growth in property taxes for next year’s budgets has been set at 0.12 percent, a number derived from the inflation rate that will force further belt-tightening for school districts.
The cap, instituted in 2011, limits levy increases to the rate of inflation or 2 percent, whichever is lower. Last year’s number, 1.62 percent, left school officials groaning that they could barely make ends meet. Clearly, reaction to this year’s figure will be even louder.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed an increase in state aid to public schools of just over 4 percent, but that helps some districts much more than others. Brentwood, for instance, gets almost two-thirds of its $354 million budget from state aid and is projected to get a 3.4 percent increase in that pot for 2016-17, so it will have a hike of well over 2 percent to spend overall. Smithtown, though, gets only about one-seventh of its budget from state aid, so while it is slated to get a 2.5 percent increase from Albany, it will have only about 0.4 percent more money overall.
Districts can try to bust the tax cap, of course, with 60 percent approval by voters, but most taxpayers haven’t been willing to go along. Many districts have seen enrollments drop and some are closing schools. Pension costs, after skyrocketing during the recent recession, have been declining, as have costs of heating and gasoline.
But there has been precious little in the way of real money-saving changes. Districts are not consolidating or innovating to save money. Schools on Long Island are still spending about $22,000 per student, a staggering number.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. This may be the year the cap spurs the inventiveness that taxpayers are looking for.