Gary Bixhorn said it's "absolutely" clear that lawmakers intend to...

Gary Bixhorn said it's "absolutely" clear that lawmakers intend to approve some type of statewide cap. (Nov. 24, 2010) Credit: James Carbone

After months of warning that a state-imposed cap on property taxes could prove a disaster, Long Island's school leaders now concede that some sort of cap is a virtual certainty.

So those leaders are switching strategies by proposing a series of restrictions that would limit the impact of tax caps on classroom spending in the school year ahead.

In a letter e-mailed to state lawmakers this weekend, the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association urges that taxes be capped only in school districts where residents vote "no" on a budget. The school chiefs further recommend that certain costs be exempted from caps, and that districts be allowed to raise taxes enough to compensate for anticipated losses in state aid.

Gary Bixhorn, who heads the association's legislative committee, said it's "absolutely" clear that lawmakers intend to approve some type of statewide cap. Specific proposals range from 2 to 4 percent.

"But the point is, there are ways to make the tax cap more sensitive to local priorities," added Bixhorn, who is chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES, a regional school agency.


Some exemptions wanted

School officials say the state should exempt from the cap expenses mandated by Albany - for example, increases in district contributions to employee pensions.

Ranier Melucci, superintendent of Merrick schools, said that Nassau superintendents generally agree with the positions taken by their counterparts in Suffolk.

"I think there's no doubt there will be some kind of tax cap, whether it's 2 percent or 3 percent," said Melucci, president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. "But hopefully, there will be some exemptions."

On the other hand, business representatives who think the Island's economy is at risk of being strangled by taxes say the superintendents' plan would make caps meaningless. A 2007 U.S. Census report ranked Nassau County fourth nationwide in the percentage of household income paid to property taxes; Suffolk County ranked 11th.

"If we don't do something to stop this madness, our economy is going to collapse in front of us," said Richard Bivone of East Meadow, chairman of the Long Island Business Council. "There should be no exemptions at all."


Not just on schools

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo won a landslide victory with a campaign that included a pledge to seek a 2 percent cap. The cap's biggest impact would be on schools, though it would apply to all local governments.

Under Cuomo's plan, school districts could override the cap only by a 60 percent vote of residents. Both Republican and Democratic leaders in the State Legislature have endorsed a cap, while adding that details need to be negotiated.

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