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June 5, 2008

 

Reaction mixed to governor’s school tax cap

Lawmakers say proposal to cap levy increases to 4 percent needs other tax relief measures

By CHRISTINE LAUBENSTEIN
Staff Reporter
claubenstein@cortlandstandard.net

The governor’s proposal to cap school tax increases at 4 percent sounds good on the surface, Dryden homeowner Meg Plumeau said, but she wonders if it will result in either more state taxes or a reduction in school services.
“It’s nice to look at one piece of the picture, but you really need to look at the whole picture before you say whether it’s a good idea,” Plumeau, 55, said of the proposed cap.
State legislators representing Cortland and Tompkins counties and area school board members are also hesitant to support the cap.
They pointed to other needed tax relief measures, such as continued state aid increases, a reduction in unfunded mandates and authorization for regional collective bargaining.
On Tuesday, the state’s Commission on Property Tax relief released a 112-page report calling for the 4 percent cap before any other school tax relief measures are approved.
New York’s local taxes are the highest in the nation at 79 percent above the national average. Outside of New York City, 62 percent of property taxes go toward schools.
Gov. David Paterson intends to propose legislation on the tax cap this week, saying quick action is needed to keep mounting tax bills from driving homeowners and businesses from the state.
Budgets with a 4 percent tax increase or less will continue to be voted on each year. The property tax commission had recommended against it, but Paterson wanted to preserve the annual vote.
The legislation will include a safeguard for school districts, allowing them higher tax levy increases if taxpayers approve them in a public vote.
At least 55 percent of voters would have to support the higher increase, and if the school is receiving a state aid increase of 5 percent or more, at least 60 percent of voters would need to approve an increase.
Sen. Barbara Lifton (D-Ithaca) said she will only support the legislation if it includes a provision guaranteeing continued increases in state aid for schools. Otherwise school programs will suffer.
Sen. Jim Seward (R-Milford) and Assemblyman Gary Finch (R-Springport) emphasized making the formula for state funding for rural districts more equitable by shifting money from wealthy school districts to poor, rural school districts.
An improved formula should be tied to the property tax cap to ensure local districts have enough money, they said.
Furthermore, Seward said, state lawmakers must do away with costly unfunded state mandates, including mandates related to special education, pensions and health insurance. That should be part of the new legislation, he said.
Homer school board president Forrest Earl added that the state could add a provision to the legislation allowing regional collective bargaining pacts, which would limit a district’s need to raise salaries to compete with neighboring districts for talented employees.
“Districts are in a tricky position,” Earl said.
Homer Teachers Union President Jim Baldwin could not be reached this morning.
Earl said he supports the cap provided the state provides necessarily financial relief to the districts, including reduced regulations.
He said he didn’t understand, however, why a property tax levy increase above 4 percent would require approval by at least 55 percent of voters. It should be 50 percent, he said.
“That affects a democracy in general,” he said about the requirements. “That’s carrying it to the extreme.”
Cincinnatus school board member Pete Bush said he is opposed to the property tax cap because it ends up giving too much control to the state at the expense of local residents.
The local residents are the ones who have to live with their decision, whereas the state won’t be held as accountable, he said.
Legislators have until the end of the legislative session on June 23 to hammer out a bill.
Paterson wants to have legislation approved by that date. If it isn’t, a special session of the Legislature could be called.
State legislators representing Cortland and Tompkins counties said an agreement will be difficult to achieve in the next few weeks, but they are optimistic it can happen.

 

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