By Kathryn G. Menu
Sag Harbor School Business Administrator Jennifer Buscemi has been working with a number of Suffolk County school districts in an effort to present New York State with an efficiency plan that if successful could end with taxpayers receiving a tax rebate check in their mailboxes.
On Tuesday, May 5, Ms. Buscemi presented the school board with an update on the district’s efficiency plan, which it is developing alongside the Southampton School District, as well as a handful of other districts in Suffolk County, including Comeswogue, Miller Place, Westhampton Beach, Port Jefferson, Mt. Sinai and Riverhead. As a team, the districts will present one final plan through the Southampton School District.
The goal in creating the efficiency plans is to give residents access to a property tax freeze credit. That credit was established by the state in 2014 in an effort to encourage municipalities to develop plans for long-term tax relief through sharing services, consolidation or mergers, or other measures that reduce costs over several years.
If the state agrees the districts’ plan meets its criteria for tax relief, it would fully reimburse homeowners with household incomes of less than $500,000 for any tax increases as a result of the 2015-2016 school budget. Municipalities and school districts can only apply if they have remained below a 2-percent property tax levy cap, which Sag Harbor has in its adopted 2015-16 budget.
According to Ms. Buscemi, the school district was tasked with finding $332,239 in savings with the group as a whole looking to achieve over $5 million in savings. Sag Harbor was able to detail $988,009 in quantifiable taxpayer savings it has initiated, with the group of districts collectively exceeding its goal by over $1.5 million for its June 1 application deadline.
The largest savings achieved in Sag Harbor in the 2015-2016 budget, she noted, was in teacher salaries for those who took a retirement incentive at the close of the 2014 school year. The district shows $346,818 in savings from teachers who were never replaced after the retirement incentive, and an additional $446,493 in savings in reduced salaries as younger teachers replaced retirees at a lower pay scale. Other efficiencies were found through a reduction in the daily rate for substitute teachers, a bifurcated custodial salary schedule, and restructuring in the physical education department. The plan also shows savings with the resignation of the director of facilities, who will not be replaced prior to the plan’s submission to state officials.
While the district exceeded its state mandated goal to apply for the property tax freeze credit by $655,769, that money, noted Ms. Buscemi, will offset any shortfalls by other districts in the cooperative application, giving the districts a greater chance of success, even if state officials throw out some of the exemptions schools have declared.
The plan, she added, does not bind the district. For example, should the administration choose to hire a new director of facilities, it would not need to re-file the application with the state because the tax credit is assessed on an annual basis.
“This is still up for review and just because we submit a plan doesn’t mean it will be approved, but we really feel we have put together a strong plan and our taxpayers will be eligible,” said Ms. Buscemi.
“What I think is outstanding is we have found almost triple of what is needed to meet our target efficiency plan,” said board vice-president Chris Tice.
Ms. Buscemi also presented the board with a final look at the district’s proposed $37.5 million budget for 2015-16, prior to the vote and school board elections on Tuesday, May 19.
The budget represents a 1.85 percent increase over last year, with a projected property tax levy limit of 2.53 percent. The tax levy, if the budget is approved, is projected to rise by 2.49 percent, or by $826,082.
Ms. Buscemi noted that all budget presentations are available for review on the school district’s website, sagharborschools.org.
In addition to the budget, on May 19, the district will also ask voters to weigh in on the approval of a repair reserve fund. The reserve fund would be for projects that do not exceed $2,500,000 and fall outside the scope of annual repairs or maintenance. The reserve fund would be created out of unassigned fund balance and appropriations remaining from the previous year’s budget and cannot be funded by more than $750,000 a year.
School board candidates can weigh in on the budget, the reserve fund, and many other issues this Thursday, May 7, at 7 p.m. in a Meet the Candidates forum sponsored by the Sag Harbor Elementary School PTA and the Pierson Middle High School PTSA. The Meet the Candidates forum will be held in the Pierson Middle-High School Library and will be moderated by Sag Harbor Express managing editor Stephen J. Kotz. Incumbents Thomas John Schiavoni and Chris Tice will be joined on the dais by candidates Stephanie Bitis, James Ding and James Sanford.