Growth in school taxes on Long Island and statewide will be held near a zero base next year — the tightest restriction since Albany first began capping annual taxation by school districts and municipalities in 2012.
The statewide cap of 0.12 percent, announced Wednesday by state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, covers the 2016-17 school year and is down sharply from the current year’s baseline limit of 1.62 percent.
The squeeze on local taxation means that school districts will depend increasingly on state financial assistance as they scramble to meet rising costs, including salary hikes averaging more than 2 percent. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed a $105.7 million aid increase — or 4.7 percent — for the Island’s 124 systems next year. Area lawmakers have vowed to seek more.
For homeowners, the tax limitation often spells welcome relief. School taxes account for more than 60 percent of property taxes in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which are among the most heavily taxed in the nation.
“Wonderful!” said Joel Katz, a Port Washington resident and founder of a local watchdog group, Citizens for School Management.
“Absolutely terrific!” said Fred Gorman of Nesconset, a leader of a regional taxpayer organization, Long Islanders for Educational Reform.
Gorman, who is 72, added, “Now I know I can live in my house until I’m 90, because I know the taxes are going to be manageable.”
Local school officials said they’re seeking relief of a different sort — the lifting of state “mandates” that, those officials contend, pile unnecessary costs on their districts.
School authorities cited two mandates in particular. One is the state’s Taylor Law, which grants teacher unions annual scheduled salary “step” raises even after contracts expire. The other is the Wicks Law, a 1920s measure that requires districts to negotiate separate school-construction contracts for masonry, electric wiring and other aspects of the work, rather than dealing with a single contractor.
“If there is any mandate that should be the target of taxpayer outrage, it is New York’s continued adherence to the Wicks Law,” said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association. “We are the last state in the union that clings to this.”
School leaders said that Cuomo and state lawmakers will have to more than double the $900 million-plus in aid already proposed statewide for 2016-17, just to maintain existing student services.
Officials in districts such as Brentwood and Freeport that enroll growing numbers of immigrant students said they need extra financial help from Albany to help students from Central and South America who speak limited English.
The state’s cap law — a Cuomo initiative — limits school districts and other local governments to basic annual tax increases of 2 percent or the inflation rate, whichever is less. Inflation is running unusually low now because of falling oil prices and other economic trends.
“Tying the cap to the Consumer Price Index is very, very dangerous, as we’ve said all along,” said Kevin Coyne, president of Brentwood’s 1,300-member teacher union, the largest educational local on the Island.
The governor’s former budget director, Mary Beth Labate, noted in a briefing last week — before she stepped down — that a low tax cap for 2016-17 had been long expected. Other Cuomo aides pointed out that the cap law has sharply reduced the rate of increase in school taxes, which had regularly risen at double the inflation rate prior to 2012.
“We think that’s cause for celebration,” Labate said.
The actual tax cap on individual districts varies, because of exceptions included in the law; those include exemptions granted to school-construction spending approved by local voters. Districts can exceed their cap limit only by winning “supermajority” votes of 60 percent or better in budget votes scheduled this year for May 17.
The statewide baseline cap announced Wednesday applies to 677 school districts statewide, including the 124 on Long Island. It also covers 10 cities across the state, including Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers.
DiNapoli acknowledged Wednesday that the projected “nearly zero” increase in local taxes would limit budget options both for school and municipal authorities.
“Although some local governments can rely on available reserve funds to bridge the gap, others may need to take a hard look at operations to find ways to cut costs to stay under the cap,” DiNapoli said in a prepared statement.
Statewide tax cap
The property tax cap, imposed in 2012, limits tax-levy increases to 2 percent, with certain exceptions, or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.
The statewide allowable tax-levy increase, calculated by the state comptroller’s office, is a baseline figure. Every year, each school district has its own tax-cap limit.
Statewide caps in past years: