"I just wish I knew more clearly why taxes are going up so much."
"It's very clear that school taxes and school spending have been in excelsior mode, just going ever upward," said Matthew Maguire of the Business Council of New York. "This is not the first time state aid has been big, and it's not like we've been shorting schools. But we know of no case where raising taxes at one level has caused them to shrink at another."
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/05/nyregion/05taxes.html?ref=education May 5, 2007 N.Y. Schools Seek Higher Taxes Despite Extra Aid By FORD FESSENDEN John Caruana, an electrician, has been startled by how fast the taxes in his suburban community of North Massapequa have risen since he moved into his small Cape Cod home six years ago with his wife and their three children.
His next tax bill could give him the biggest shock yet: Plainedge Public Schools are asking for a 9.3 percent increase in the tax levy, in a year when the district, like many around the state, will also receive a substantial increase in state education aid.
Just weeks after the New York Legislature budgeted a record $900 million in new aid for the state?s 671 school districts that are not part of cities, the districts have responded with plans to raise $691 million more in new taxes.
?I make a decent wage, but we?re struggling,? said Mr. Caruana, 46, whose tax bill would grow by about $450 if the school budget passes. (His annual tax bill is now $8,000 a year, up from $6,000 six years ago.) ?I just wish I knew more clearly why taxes are going up so much.?
School officials say that they are doing what they can to reduce taxes, but that they face yearly increases of 5 to 6 percent in teacher salaries, and double-digit spikes in health insurance and energy costs. ?I realistically see districts at 3 to 6 percent every year, and that?s if we get decent state aid,? said Kenneth J. Connolly, schools superintendent in Lakeland in Westchester County.
But tax opponents say the increases constitute more evidence that state money will not end the drumbeat of higher property taxes. They say New York should emulate New Jersey and Connecticut, where governors have pushed for property tax relief to be accompanied by spending caps.
?If you simply give them more aid, it doesn?t stop them from raising taxes; it just raises their budgets,? said E. J. McMahon, the director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative group. ?You had a big school aid increase last year, and one this year, and they?re still raising property taxes.?
The office of Gov. Eliot Spitzer said in a statement that he ?believes that we must find ways to make it more affordable to provide a high quality education,? but that he opposes caps on school spending.
The districts? proposed tax increases, which will be voted on May 15, are generally lower than last year?s, but still above the rate of inflation. Statewide, they amount to 4.4 percent; in Westchester, they average 5.6 percent, and on Long Island, 4.7 percent. Nationwide, inflation has been about 3.25 percent over the last year, and the state budget projects it at 2.2 percent over the next year.
New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester and Yonkers do not have independent taxing authority and do not vote on school budgets.
Even the $436 million in additional rebates passed this year from the School Tax Relief program will not cover the increased tax levy in most districts.
To be sure, much of the new state aid is earmarked for lower-income districts, including some in the suburbs, to help the districts catch up to better financed schools. For example, in Copiague, which is one of three high-need districts on Long Island that face a state order to spend money on improving scores, the district plans new hiring, new advanced placement classes and special summer programs aimed at disadvantaged students.
Many districts say they applied at least a part of their new state aid money to tax relief, but only a few managed to bring tax increases below the inflation rate. Sachem Central School District, in Suffolk County, has proposed a tax levy decrease, and the tax levy proposed by Uniondale Public Schools is the same as last year?s.
?The only good budget is a passed budget,? said Charles J. Murphy, the superintendent in Sachem, where taxpayers defeated a budget proposal two years ago.
Last year, when the average tax increase was 5.8 percent on Long Island and 7.6 percent in Westchester, 85 percent of school budgets passed in the three counties. On Long Island, that was up from 2004 and 2005, when districts proposed increases averaging more than 7 percent and more than a third of the budgets were defeated. School officials say they are not deeply concerned about a wave of rejections this year.
Most districts say they are able to soften tax increases, not lower taxes, even with the additional money. Total state aid increased $1.73 billion this year to $19.7 billion, of which $832 million is marked for New York City, Yonkers, Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo. Last year, in what was at the time a record, aid increased by about $1.1 billion.
?It?s nearly impossible to maintain programs, meet enrollment increases, and stay within something like the cost of living,? said Robert Siebert, the superintendent in Eastchester, where the proposed budget calls for a tax levy increase of 5.6 percent.
In New Jersey, the Legislature passed a 4 percent cap on property tax increases along with a 20 percent tax rebate program this year. And in Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed a 3 percent cap in March to accompany her proposal for property tax relief, arguing that it was the only way to ensure that districts passed the savings on to taxpayers.
The Connecticut legislature is still considering that package, which is opposed by the state teachers union. In New York, Mr. Spitzer?s predecessor, George E. Pataki, tried several times to add a cap to the school tax relief program, without success.
In Plainedge, the superintendent, John Richman, said the board proposed a large increase this year because many parents came to budget meetings in March and April demanding more and better programs. Yards throughout the small, middle class district are pocked with red and white yard signs that read: ?Vote yes for our kids. Plainedge Soccer Club.?
Plainedge officials have campaigned for the increase by arguing that the average tax increase would be canceled by the enhanced rebate. Dr. Richman calculated that the average rebate under the tax relief program passed this year would be $649, compared to a $632 rise in the average tax bill.
?We?ve been told by school officials? that the increase in state tax relief ?would offset the rise in the local budget,? said Eileen Inzerilli, a human resources manager for a Long Island company who has three boys in the Plainedge schools.
Still, the growth in tax increases outpaces the growth in rebates. The district?s taxpayers will get just $1.7 million in additional rebates this year, far less than the $4.3 million in additional taxes the Plainedge district has proposed.
That is true in most districts: statewide, only about a third of the districts will get more in new rebates than they are assessing in new taxes.
When it was instituted by Governor Pataki in 1997, the school tax relief program shielded taxpayers from tax increases for about three years before property taxes resumed their upward climb.
Business groups expressed consternation that the districts continued to raise taxes. Businesses do not get similar relief, so they bear the full brunt of additional levies.
?It?s very clear that school taxes and school spending have been in excelsior mode, just going ever upward,? said Matthew Maguire of the Business Council of New York. ?This is not the first time state aid has been big, and it?s not like we?ve been shorting schools. But we know of no case where raising taxes at one level has caused them to shrink at another.?
He said his group had not taken a position on a spending cap.
Paul Vitale, the vice president for governmental affairs for the Business Council of Westchester, said the districts needed discipline imposed from outside.
?Their first inclination is let?s spend it, let?s not give it back to the taxpayers,? Mr. Vitale said. ?If they can come in under 10 percent, they feel like they?re heroes. The governor should say this money comes with strings attached ? you have to reduce taxes.?