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Patchogue-Medford busing proposition could upend tax rebate checks

Donna Jones, assistant superintendent of business of Patchogue-Medford

Donna Jones, assistant superintendent of business of Patchogue-Medford School District, outside of South Ocean Middle School in Patchogue on May 12, 2014. Credit: Johnny Milano

An unusual twist in Patchogue-Medford's proposed $171.7 million school-budget package could disqualify local taxpayers from receiving state rebate checks, depending on the fate of a parent-sponsored ballot proposition next Tuesday, district officials have said.

Voting on school budgets, propositions and board candidates will be held May 20 across Long Island and the state.

Patchogue-Medford's situation -- which legal experts say has potential statewide ramifications -- revolves around a special $330,948 ballot proposition that would expand busing for students attending nonpublic schools. Local voter approval of that proposition would push the district over its state-imposed tax-cap limit, making homeowners ineligible for rebates.

The district's proposed budget of $171.4 million would keep within the cap. Patchogue-Medford administrators repeatedly have indicated in reports submitted to state agencies since March that their budget would not override the district's cap.

But last Thursday, district administrators abruptly acknowledged at a lightly attended public hearing that voter approval of both the budget and the busing proposition would result in a loss of tax rebates, due to a cap override.

The state's election-year rebate plan, approved earlier this spring by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and lawmakers, restricts payments to residents of districts that stick within caps.

The budget alone would raise spending 2.38 percent, but lower the tax levy 0.07 percent. The latter figure is the district's cap. The busing proposition, coupled with the budget, would raise taxes 0.76 percent, thereby exceeding the cap.

Patchogue-Medford officials interviewed Monday and Friday said statements regarding their intent to stay within cap limits were accurate, because the busing proposition was placed on the ballot by a parents' group, not the district.

Those officials added that the announcement regarding the potential loss of rebates had to be delayed until last week, after state tax officials released a detailed explanation of the rebate program and the district's lawyers had done their own review. "This is, in some regards, uncharted waters," said Donna Jones, the district's assistant superintendent for business.

Both the budget and the proposition will require voter majorities of 60 percent or more to pass, under the state's cap law.

One longtime district resident, Maryann Pogue-Beilstein, said Monday she had not been aware of the rebate issue until contacted by Newsday, but that she opposed the busing initiative. The proposition would extend from 15 miles to 25 miles the maximum distance that students living in the district could be bused to nonpublic schools.

"Well, I don't think it's going to pass -- I hope it doesn't," said the 70-year-old retiree. "Our school taxes are exceedingly high -- every year, they go up and up and up."

Leaders of Catholic parents who support the busing proposal said that its cost would be relatively modest and provide needed transportation in an area where no Catholic high schools are located within the 15-mile limit. Supporters added that they collected more than 200 signatures to put the proposition on the ballot, more than twice the 100 required by district rules.

"All we're asking is that the district acts with fairness and fiscal responsibility in helping our children," said one petition organizer, Stephen McGiff, a Patchogue attorney and former village deputy mayor who is active in the local St. Francis DeSales Catholic Church.

The state comptroller's office, which is responsible for collecting district data regarding tax levies and reporting those figures to the public, does not solicit information on ballot propositions, even if those propositions could result in cap overrides. "At the end of the day, it's up to the school district to inform its voters about the ramifications of its budgets and propositions," said Brian Butry, an agency spokesman.

With Jim Merritt

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