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School tax-cap calculations puzzle voters

Gov. Cuomo at Molloy College talking about his

Gov. Cuomo at Molloy College talking about his 2012-2013 budget and reform plan. (Feb. 2, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Even homeowners who could save money under the state's new tax cap don't necessarily understand how it works.

Many Long Islanders, ahead of Tuesday's budget votes in 124 school districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties, say they're baffled by new caps on property-tax growth. The confusion is compounded, local educators said, by the state's failure to clearly explain the system and whether an individual district is staying within its cap.

"I think you have to be a mathematician to figure that out," said Jim Tampellini, an attorney who lives in Commack and attended recent budget meetings where school officials outlined the state's eight-step formula for setting the district's tax-levy limit.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who pushed through the tax limits last year, describes the system as a "2 percent cap" -- a characterization widely echoed by many other officials and the media.

But that percentage is far from the whole story: While a 2 percent growth factor is used in calculating each district's cap, other factors, including exemptions for school-renovation costs, mean that the tax-levy limit for individual districts varies widely.

For the 2012-13 school year, budgets proposed by the Island's 124 districts have tax increases that average 2.6 percent -- the smallest average increase in more than 15 years, but still above 2 percent. This Voters Guide includes tax and spending proposals, along with each district's tax-levy limit.

School officials agreed the cap numbers are tough to explain. Commack, for example, proposes a 2.6 percent tax hike, well under its 4.1 percent cap.

"People can't quite understand the 4.1 percent, but they are appreciative we came in with 2.6 percent," Superintendent Donald James said.

Joseph Dragone, assistant superintendent for business in Roslyn, contends the state's 2 percent figure is misleading. "None of the documents we are required to publish by the state explain this adequately," he said.

A case in point: the Property Tax Report Card, a state-required form released annually by each school district that once was considered a model of clarity.

As in years past, a new version of the report card released last month includes the percentage increase in tax revenues that each district proposes to collect in 2012-13.

But the form does not include the district's capped percentage increase for comparison against the proposed increase. So one cannot determine -- without actually doing the calculation -- if the percentage of a district's proposed tax increase is within its cap.

Instead, the report card advises: "If the Proposed School Year Tax Levy in 2012-13 (including Permissible Exclusions to the School Tax Levy Limit in 2012-13) exceeds the sum of the School Tax Levy Limit for 2012-13 and Permissible Exclusions to the School Tax Levy Limit in 2012-13, approval of 60% or more of the qualified voters present and voting is required."

Say what?

Here's what that boils down to: If a district's proposed budget results in a tax-levy increase above that district's cap, a 60 percent majority vote -- rather than a simple majority vote -- is required to approve the budget.

At least 17 districts on Long Island are proposing budgets that seek to pierce their district's cap. As in years past, if a budget is rejected, a second vote is allowed, and districts may opt to offer a revised spending plan. If voters again say no, the district's tax levy is frozen at its current level.

This year's report card was revised jointly by the governor's aides and state Education Department staffers, with some internal wrangling and with the former in charge.

Deborah H. Cunningham, the Education Department's coordinator for school management services, acknowledged the form is "a little wordy." She said this reflects efforts to be faithful to the wording of state law.

Morris Peters, a spokesman for the governor's Budget Division, said voters this year are finding "they have more information and that there is greater transparency than ever before."

"But naturally," Peters added, "there will be a learning curve for voters as they go through the process this first time."

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