By Claire Walla
“It would be devastating across the board,” said Sag Harbor School Board member Dan Hartnett at Monday’s school board meeting. Hartnett was referring to a two-percent property tax cap proposed by governor elect Andrew Cuomo which, if enacted, he said would significantly limit the amount of money funneling into the state’s public education system.
Here in Sag Harbor, a relatively wealthy district that does not see a lot of state or federal aid money, schools operate almost exclusively on revenue from local property taxes, which can be steep. Last year alone, funding the school budget required a property tax increase of 12 percent.
This year, according to the Sag Harbor School District’s Five-Year Plan, property taxes will need to increase an additional seven percent just to cover the rising cost of the district’s fixed fees, such as teachers’ retirement benefits and rising health care costs. This means that if property taxes are capped at two percent — and the district maintains its current level of operation — it will be short about $1.5 million.
The idea for the property-tax cap was floated by Cuomo during the gubernatorial race in the fall. However, now that he has been elected governor, Cuomo has recently announced plans to make this one of the focal points of his administration.
“I just have a lot of fear about it,” Hartnett continued. Should this measure go into effect, the district will have no choice but to cut costs. And, Hartnett added, “there are only so many paper clips or crayons you can cut back on.”
Should the tax cap go into effect, Sag Harbor School Board President Walter Wilcoxen said, “I would have to almost guarantee it would require staffing cuts.”
Wilcoxen noted this throws another wrench in the spokes. According to state law, the district must begin lay-offs with the most recently hired, and because these employees receive the lowest salaries in the district, the schools would have to cut a greater number of staff members in order to make up that $1.5 million shortfall.
Some board members and others present at Monday’s school board meeting noted it would take some time before such a measure can actually be imposed, if it’s imposed at all. Plus, there is an element attached to the current plan, which would allow residents in the school district to override the two-percent cap with a 60 percent majority vote.
Janet Verneuille, the district’s director of business operations, believes the state will probably try in some way to limit the burden on taxpayers, whether it’s a two-percent cap, or something a little less drastic. But whatever this impending legislation entails, she said, it will take a toll on the district.
“[The state] can’t have it both ways,” she said. “If it’s going to lower taxes [and the school's main source of revenue], it needs to give districts relief on the expenses they cannot control.”
In addition to state mandates on pension plans and health care costs (which will increase about 13.5 percent next year), Verneuille said state-mandated purchasing, transportation, civil service and special education costs make it impossible to save on certain expenses.
When the issue was brought up by Hartnett at Monday’s meeting on December 20, school superintendent Dr. John Gratto said he and other members of the Suffolk County Superintendent’s Association have been grappling with what the two-percent cap would mean, financially, for the county.
The board also discussed several cost-saving alternatives to the tax cap, as suggested in a document released by the New York State School Board Association. They include, among other ideas, temporarily freezing school salaries, providing lower-cost regional health care plans and implementing a mandatory minimum health insurance contribution for all employees.
Hartnett went on to suggest the board form a legislative committee to address these types of state issues that bear considerable weight on the district.
“We’re really going to have to organize and advocate for this,” he said. “Because this is serious.”