School voting kicks off early this year in East Islip with a referendum Thursday on a $15.4 million energy conservation project and two smaller spending propositions.
The referendum comes less than six weeks before May 16, when voters in Long Island’s 124 public school districts and others across the state decide on budgets for the 2017-18 year and board candidates.
East Islip officials acknowledged the referendum’s unusual timing but said it will give them a head start over other school systems in applying for state aid to help finance the energy project. They said they expect the project’s costs to be met through a combination of state assistance and savings on energy and that they do not anticipate the need for a tax increase.
Language on the referendum ballot, however, specifies that project financing could be provided either through a lease purchase agreement or “through the levy of a tax to be collected in annual installments.”
The referendum’s unusual scheduling and the potential for higher taxes attracted the attention of East Islip TaxPac, a local taxpayer group that has acted as a fiscal watchdog in the community for more than 25 years. TaxPac has urged voters to say “no” to the energy proposition.
The energy project is listed as Proposition No. 1 on the ballot. It would approve funding for a contract that East Islip signed in October with Honeywell International Inc., a corporation based in Morris Plains, New Jersey.
Under the agreement, Honeywell would install energy-saving thermostat controls in school buildings, along with more efficient lighting and other equipment. That would include a field of solar panels on grounds adjacent to the district’s John F. Kennedy Elementary School.
Andrea Vecchio, a local TaxPac founder, said the proposition, if approved, would give school officials the authority to raise the district’s tax levy beyond limits set by the state’s tax-cap law. A levy is the total revenue collected through property taxation.
“Just look at the legal wording, which most people don’t read,” Vecchio said. “It gives them the power to levy a tax, and a levy that is outside the cap.”
John Dolan, the district’s superintendent, characterized the ballot language as a technicality.
“That is legal jargon,” said Dolan, who became schools chief in July 2016, after planning for the energy project was underway. “It can raise your tax cap a little bit. But we’re saying we’re looking to stay below the cap every year.”
A referendum brochure posted on East Islip’s website originally stated that the energy proposition would have “no tax impact for taxpayers.” That wording recently was changed to say the proposition would have “no expected tax impact for taxpayers.”
Dolan said the referendum’s timing was intended in part to allow for the return of residents who usually head south during the winter months. The superintendent added that voter approval next month would allow the district to apply for state aid before any other systems move to do so after propositions in their districts pass muster at the polls on May 16.
With approval of the proposition on the $15.4 million project, East Islip also would qualify for an additional 10 percent reimbursement of energy conservation costs.
“We want to hear from the public,” Dolan said.
Vecchio, who noted the timing of the referendum as separate from the May 16 vote on the budget and board candidates, described the referendum as a “back door” attempt to raise taxes when few residents were paying attention.
District officials said costs of repaying money borrowed to fund the energy improvements would run about $1.2 million a year. They estimated that state financial aid would meet $700,000 of that amount, with the remaining $500,000 paid through savings on fuel and electricity.
Taxes, under their plan, would rise only if energy savings did not meet expectations. Any such increase would equate to about $50 per year for an average homeowner, Dolan said.
The superintendent and other East Islip officials already announced that the district’s 2017-18 budget would remain within its allowable capped tax increase of 1.39 percent. Costs of voter-approved building improvements are exempt from the cap.
Proposition No. 2 in next week’s referendum would allow the district to spend about $300,000 from a reserve fund on new classroom door locks and other security measures. Proposition No. 3 would authorize $116,000 from surplus funds to upgrade a playground at Timber Point Elementary School.
Neither of the smaller propositions would raise taxes.
Voters can cast ballots from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday at the district’s administration building, 1 Craig B. Gariepy Ave. in Islip Terrace.