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The Times
  • Most schools stay under the tax cap, even if it doesn't look that way

  • For the school budget to pass in West Canada Valley, 60 percent of voters who go to the polls today have to say “Yes” to the proposed $14.2 million budget. That's because of the new so-called two percent tax cap law.

    In the confusing calculation of the tax levy with the new law, anything over .82 percent, not two percent, needs a supermajority of West Canada Valley voters to approve.

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  • For the school budget to pass in West Canada Valley, 60 percent of voters who go to the polls today have to say “Yes” to the proposed $14.2 million budget. That's because of the new so-called two percent tax cap law.
    In the confusing calculation of the tax levy with the new law, anything over .82 percent, not two percent, needs a supermajority of West Canada Valley voters to approve.
    But trying to explain it all to taxpayers was difficult.
    Superintendant John Banek hopes the message is clear that “It's needed to maintain quality programming, and not impact current class sizes,” he said.
    According to the New York State School Boards Association, only eight percent of the roughly 700 districts around the state have proposed tax levies greater than allowed by law - levies that would require getting 60 percent of voters to approve them.
    At least two area districts - West Canada Valley and Oppenheim-Ephratah - exceeded the levy amount and need the 60 percent approval.
    West Canada Valley is proposing a 4.82 percent tax increase, Banek said, to raise approximately $200,000. That, along with the $450,000 already cut out of the budget and using $145,000 of the district's savings will save programming in the district and bridge a $700,000 budget deficit and manage cost increases.
    “Due to reductions, we're really down to a bare bones budget, and further reductions will only impact students,” Banek said.
    Just because only two area districts are trying to exceed the new limit, that doesn't mean voters in other districts won't see a number higher than two percent on the ballot or in the district budget newsletter.
    Because the law has so many caveats for what falls under the cap, even if the number is higher than two percent, it could still fall under the limit.
    “I think we've worked hard to educate the public that the two percent tax cap is not actually two percent,” Clinton Superintendent Matthew Reilly said.
    Clinton's budget calls for a 1.5 percent tax increase, even though it could have gone as high as 2.33 percent.
    “The district decided to go out with a levy below the allowable limit in recognition of the tax burden that residents are already facing in these uncertain times,” Reilly wrote in the district's newsletter.
    The Utica City School District also could have gone over the 1.55 percent as well, but Superintendent Bruce Karam expressed similar concern for his taxpayers.
    Thomas Dorr, assistant superintendent of the Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES, Compared to their overall budgets, taxes don't raise a lot of income for school districts, but are a burden on residents, and it may not be worth it to try and get 60 percent of voters to approve it.
    Page 2 of 2 - “(Districts are) very conscious of what the taxpayer can bear,” Dorr said.
    Even before the law, Mark Vivacqua, superintendent of the Herkimer BOCES, said, historically districts in his area don't raise taxes much more than 2.5 percent.
    “Our communities don't have much tax revenue, anyway,” he said.
    Most area districts receive most of their funding from the state, which has cut back drastically in the recent years, causing the large budget deficits districts are facing.
    “(The tax rate) doesn't matter as much as the fact that we're running a 21.5 percent deficit from what the state says we're owed,” Vivacqua said. That amounts to more than $22 million that didn't go to districts in Herkimer County.
    The tax cap law makes far more sense downstate, where schools are funded more by taxpayers than by the state.
    “If you have an $18,000 school tax burden, which probably isn't out of the question for a lot of individuals (downstate), and every year it goes up three, four, five percent,” Dorr said, “I think that's really where the support for the tax cap came from.”
    With the tax cap law, Timothy Kremer, executive director of the school boards association, doesn't believe districts can survive without more help from the state.
    “If school boards are going to cope with the property tax levy cap on a long-term basis without gutting educational programs, they need more help from state government” like mandate relief, he said.
    That might help with next year's budget, but West Canada Valley's Banek is hopeful that 60 percent of voters will approve the budget today.
    “Traditionally, we have passed the budget, and traditionally we have passed the budget by 60 percent,” he said.
    In the last 29 years, only two budget have failed in the district.
    “I think for everyone out there understands the predicament we're in,” Banek said. “If the budget doesn't pass were going to have to go back to the drawing board and cut another $200,000 out of the budget.”

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