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LI school taxes: 2.6 percent increase for 2018-19

From left, Rob Ciani of the Commack Teachers

From left, Rob Ciani of the Commack Teachers Association, Nadia Resnikoff of the Middle Country Teachers Association and Mel Stern of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers Association talk with Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket) at the Capitol in Albany on March 6, 2018, about state financial aid for schools. Credit: NYSUT

School property taxes across Long Island are projected to grow at their fastest pace in five years to a total of more than $8.76 billion in 2018-19 — an average 2.6 percent increase driven largely by inflation.

School tax levies — that is, revenue raised through local property taxation — will rise next year by an average 2.78 percent in Suffolk County and an average 2.42 percent both in Nassau County and statewide, according to figures from public school districts released last week by the state comptroller’s office.

Those numbers probably will be revised downward a bit in the weeks to come after state lawmakers adopt a financial aid package for districts. School representatives who spent the past week in Albany lobbying for more money said they expect the package to expand beyond the $769 million statewide increase proposed in January by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

School taxes remain a volatile issue on the Island, where levies rank among the nation’s highest. Nassau County is one of nine large counties across the United States where homeowners pay more than $10,000 a year in property taxes, and Suffolk is close behind at $9,333, according to a 2017 analysis by Attom Data Solutions, a real-estate information firm formerly known as RealtyTrac.

More than 60 percent of homeowners’ tax bills in the region stem from educational costs, according to Attom’s analysis.

No school systems on the Island plan to attempt overrides of their local tax cap during budget votes scheduled for May 15, according to the reports supplied to the comptroller’s office. Overrides require approval by at least 60 percent of local voters.

The tiny district of New Suffolk, on the East End, has not reported its numbers to the state. Voters are to go to the polls there on March 27 to decide whether the system should become a noninstructional district — a step that would require sending all its students to nearby districts on a tuition basis and would have a significant effect on its proposed budget for the coming school year.

Districts must report projected levies to the comptroller each year by March 1 under the state’s tax-cap law, which also restricts the amount of revenue that they can raise through property taxes.

The increase in projected levies — both the county averages and the district-by-district figures — was calculated by Newsday, based on numbers provided to the state by 123 of the Island’s 124 school districts. By comparison, the percentage-point increase projected at this time last year was 1.84 percent.

The cap law, adopted in 2011, sets a statewide baseline limit on annual tax increases of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is less. The statewide baseline cap for 2018-19 will be 2 percent.

Each school district’s local cap is different, and generally exceeds the state’s baseline, because of adjustments allowed under a state formula set by law. For example, revenue gained locally through new construction or voter-approved bond issues is exempted from the baseline cap.

Consequently, annual percentage increases in levies set by districts also tend to be higher than the baseline.

This year, the majority of districts are projecting levy hikes from 1 percent to 4 percent. Exceptions include the Bridgehampton and Valley Stream 30 systems, which expect hikes in tax collections of more than 13 percent, and North Babylon and Shoreham-Wading River, which expect small decreases.

The average baseline for the coming year provides relief for districts that was welcomed by many local school administrators, who said they found themselves squeezed by limits of 1.26 percent this year and 0.12 percent in 2016-17.

Some school leaders expressed worry, however, about what might happen in years to come if inflation mounts and districts must still deal with a maximum baseline of 2 percent. Costs of teacher pensions and health insurance are accelerating at a far higher rate, they noted.

Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools, was one of many school chiefs who told Newsday they expect to maintain student services and programs next year, but are less confident about long-range prospects.

“When I look to the future, if this trajectory continues, we’ll be heading over the cliff,” said Lewis, who also serves as president-elect of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

Some taxpayer activists say districts should be thinking about how to cut expenses rather than raise them, pointing to a general decline in student enrollments.

In East Islip, a group is preparing to mail out letters, urging residents to vote against a proposed $57.9 million bond issue there. School officials have said the proposal would require no tax increase because costs of the additional borrowing would be phased in as costs of earlier borrowing are phased out.

Andrea Vecchio, a founder of East Islip TaxPac, said that argument misses the point. Spending actually could be reduced, she added, “if the district just went on a pay-as-you-go basis, instead of issuing more bond debt.”

In addition to next year’s higher cap, many districts are welcoming new construction of homes and commercial buildings that are generating extra tax dollars. Such construction is designated by the state as a “growth factor” that is exempt from the cap.

In Garden City, school authorities highlighted construction growth as a major reason the district expects to raise the local levy by 3.54 percent without placing an undue burden on individual homeowners. The reason, officials said, is the extra revenue from the property base means there is more money to go around.

“Listen, you drive around Garden City, you’d be amiss not to notice that construction is going on,” said Dana DiCapua, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and finance. “We did have a nice increase here.”

Elsewhere, some homeowners point to new construction as an opportunity to trim taxes. Steve Boder, a retiree living in Plainview, is one local activist who has pushed for lower taxes or at least a tax freeze.

Boder has bombarded school officials and others with email messages, pointing out that a 790-unit condominium project is nearing completion in Plainview, and that most units are intended for those 55 or older. Consequently, he said, most of the millions of dollars in new tax revenue generated by the project will not be needed for education.

“So they should be lowering taxes, or at least stabilizing taxes for a long time to come, because the money is going to keep coming in,” Boder said in an interview.

Administrators in the Plainview-Old Bethpage district responded that they are sensitive to the needs of taxpayers and have consistently held levy increases below allowable limits.

By the numbers

$4.45 billion

Nassau projected public school tax levy, 2018-19

$4.32 billion

Suffolk projected public school tax levy, 2018-19

$222 million

Increase in tax levies across Long Island, 2018-19

2.6 percent

Average percentage-point change in tax levy

May 15

Date of school budget vote

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