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Lawmakers to push state on school mergers

Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), shown in this

Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), shown in this 2010 photo, and Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) plan to push for budget amendments in Albany this year to help Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts merge. Photo Credit: Kathy Kmonicek

State lawmakers representing Eastern Long Island plan to push for budget amendments in Albany this year to help the Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts merge.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said they will introduce language within 30 days that would lessen the property tax increase Southampton residents would face under a merger.

Combining the two districts would save $8 million in the first year, according to a study commissioned by the two districts. But Southampton property owners would see their tax rates increase 8.67 percent -- about $210 for a $1 million house. Tuckahoe voters would see their taxes decrease 65 percent.

Tuckahoe's tax rate is currently three times higher than Southampton's, which is supported by greater taxes paid on oceanfront mansions.

Southampton voters in October overwhelmingly rejected the proposed merger in a 1,075 to 693 advisory vote.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his State of the State speech last week, called on local governments to consolidate or share services.

"The governor's State of the State sets a tone that creates a favorable climate for Southampton and Tuckahoe," Thiele said.

LaValle said he's had questions about mergers or sharing services from officials in Westhampton Beach, East Moriches and Remsenburg-Speonk school districts.

"This is a good thing, for the governor to be talking about it," he said.

Thiele said other school districts in eastern Long Island are watching to see if the Southampton and Tuckahoe mergers work.

"The feeling is, if we can make Southampton and Tuckahoe work from a financial point of view, then other districts will pursue consolidation," Thiele said. "But if that one's not going to work, then what is?"

Tuckahoe Superintendent Chris Dyer said district residents would support spreading the property tax savings between the two districts for a period of time so Southampton residents don't see a sudden tax jump. Thiele said that approach would create two separate tax districts within the consolidated school district, so changes in tax rates could be phased in.

But some residents said that flattening the taxes for a temporary time might not be enough.

Jay Diesing, president of the nonprofit Southampton Association, which campaigned against the merger, said consolidation should be more than cosmetic.

"I don't think putting sugar on top of a bad deal is the right approach," he said.

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