Effects of five years of NYS freezing high tax aid coming to a head
On the sweltering night of Tuesday, May 29, a throng of about 90 Floral Park residents filled the seats of the John Lewis Childs School (JLCS) auditorium following the failure of the Floral-Park Bellerose School District (FPBSD) budget to pass two weeks prior on May 15. The purpose of this public meeting was for the FPBSD Board of Education to provide information regarding the proposed budget that was voted down and the amended one subject to a revote on Tuesday, June 19.
As the fans in the back of the room stirred the hot air around, the board of education sat off to the side as School Superintendent Dr. Lynn Pombonyo and Business Administrator Michael Fabiano were tasked with taking this roomful of agitated residents through a PowerPoint presentation detailing expenditures, budget priorities, cuts and tax levy cap calculations. High tax aid became a hot button topic for the evening in regard to how FPBSD’s rate has been frozen by New York State for the past five years despite the district’s tax rate going up 8 percent during that time.
Among the original 2012-13 proposed budget priorities were necessary capital projects including Floral Park-Bellerose School (FPBS) and JLCS classroom tile replacements, the continuation of all current pre-K to grade six academic and extracurricular programs, offering the current pre-K program to all four-year-old students and the maintaining of class sizes that are 26 students or less. And while maintaining these smaller class sizes is a priority for the district, the fact that these numbers could increase was a particular concern for Valerie Lucas, a FPBS teacher and village resident who pointed out, “The reason people move to Bellerose and Floral Park is because of smaller class size. It’s really important for every child to be instructed as to what they need, so there is definitely a qualitative change in their education and I just wanted everyone to be aware of that.” She warned, “Going forward, we have to fight for everything we can get because the changes will definitely affect the children.”
Among the residents who spoke, first-time meeting attendee Warren Rudiger complimented the board on its attempts to find a solution to the budgetary woes and the need for taxpayers to band together, form committees and reach out to the proper parties in Albany. He also revealed the dissatisfaction many senior citizens are having with the current system. “A lot of the seniors that I know that voted this time, voted the budget down because they wanted to send a message. And that’s the truth,” he admitted. “We have grandkids in this village and we don’t want them to lose anything. We have to fight for this.”
The original 2012-13 proposed budget came in at $27,668,799, a 4.86 percent budget-to-budget change over the 2011-12 approved budget of $26,385,163. The proposed amended budget is $27,085,617, a budget-to-budget change of 2.65 percent. Potential appropriation cuts for the 2012-13 proposed amendment budget were divided into two categories: operational (renovation and repairs) and personnel (staff reductions). One hundred ninety thousand dollars was eliminated via appropriation cuts that include removing appropriations for the failed transportation referendum ($70,000), reduced appropriations for facilities renovation and repairs ($20,000) and a reduced transfer to capital for state-aided capital projects ($100,000). Proposed personnel-related appropriation cuts came out to a total of $393,182 due to staff reductions. The cuts would be the elimination of three teaching positions including benefits ($255,000), two special education teacher aid positions, per IEPs ($42,182) and a part-time nurse position including benefits ($40,000) as well as replacement savings on teacher retirement ($56,000). All these appropriation cuts come out to a total of $583,182.
Fabiano and Dr. Pombonyo pointed out that more than $250,000 in revenues had been set aside to offset costs. These monies were set aside by the board of ed in prior years and were drawn from liabilities, such as an employee retirement reserve, that New York State mandates districts must contribute to annually. But as Dr. Pombonyo pointed out, “The rule of thumb is to use it for a one-time expenditure like a capital project. Last year, we had $400,000 in bond debt that was retired. It’s something that could have been returned to the taxpayers but we kept that in the budget to save teaching positions,” she explained. “So we have done that as a priority as long as possible. We’ve reached a point that because the budget was defeated and because the board has directed us to bring it down substantially, we’re starting to include teaching positions. Even with that, a large amount is being used to keep the [proposed amended] tax levy increase at 2.47 percent over the current year.” Fabiano also added, “The most advisable use of reserves are for one-time expenditures. They are basically one-shot revenues. So next year we won’t have that money replicated so whatever we’re able to maintain using that $270,000, it will become a problem in the 2013-14 budget. If this budget fails and we have to remove the additional $500,000, we can see what happens with our projected expenses of revenues because our revenue remained flat. Unfortunately, we can’t keep going to our reserves to balance our budget. That would create a very big issue and put a lot of stress on our finances.”
Alongside reductions in the proposed amended 2012-13 budget are mandated cost increases totaling $27,085,617 which are made up of retirement system contributions ($2,047,000), health insurance premiums ($2,756,400), capital projects ($300,000) and all other expenses ($21,982,217), totaling a 2.65 percent increase over the approved 2011-12 school budget.
With property taxes fueling so much of this budget, Fabiano showed a graphic breaking down the total projected tax impact of the FPBSD and Sewanhaka Central High School District (SCHSD) budgets in the original proposed budget for 2012-13 on homes with market values of $400,000 ($5,498.34—$247.23 more than the prior year), $500,000 ($7,132.38—$314.12 more than the prior year) and $600,000 ($8,766.44—$381.02 more than the prior year). That same projected tax impact as per the proposed amended budget for 2012-13 is as follows for homes with market values of $400,000 ($5,378.61—$127.50 more than the prior year), $500,000 ($6,982.72—$164.46 more than the prior year) and $600,000 ($8,586.83—$201.41 more than the prior year.)
The business administrator also pointed out that changes in school taxes, as they appear on tax bills, are the result of two factors: changes in the local school districts’ tax levies and changes in property assessments, as determined by the Nassau County Department of Assessment. “What I end up having happen is that people will come to me and say that the rate they end up with on their tax bill comes in at a greater percentage than what we had advised was the tax levy going up. There are many factors that affect the school tax bill, mainly it’s the assessment. There are other factors as well, like adjustable base proportion, which shifts money between commercial and residential properties,” he explained. “If you think you may have a problem with your tax bill, look at your assessment and your neighbor’s assessment. The county has reduced property values in an effort to recognize the economic downturn in values of homes. But they haven’t done it evenhandedly, so it hasn’t been overly equitable. We only set the levy. We don’t set the tax rates and we don’t figure out your tax bill. There is a very good resource online, www.nassaucountyny.gov, where you can see every property online.”
Another external factor affecting the district’s money woes is that over the last two school years, 2011-12 and 2012-13, the increase in the number of students the district educates (2.92 percent more) has exceeded the growth in the budget (.60 percent), which can be reflected by the fact that the 2010-11 expenditure per pupil found FPBSD ranking dead last out of 57 Nassau districts with an average of $15, 256 spent per student versus top-ranked Jericho, which plunks down $33,323 per student.
Probably the biggest roadblock that’s prevented FPBSD from getting its budget passed in recent years was the freezing of high tax aid the district has received in the past five years. Essentially, the higher taxes a school district pays, the more high tax aid they receive from the state. Five years ago, FPBSD had 70 percent of its budget coming from taxes. At the same time, Valley Stream, a community of similar wealth, had 80 percent of its budget derived from taxes. During the five years that the freeze on high tax aid has been in place, FPBSD has received $800,000 from the state versus the $5.3 million Valley Stream has received over the same time period. In addition, taxes now make up 78 percent of the FPBSD budget, (up from 70 percent), while Valley Stream currently has 70 percent of its taxes making up its school budget (down from 80 percent). Yet the rate of high tax aid for FPBSD has not been adjusted by the state due to the freeze.
Dr. Pombonyo did say that she and the board of education had met with Senator Jack Martins in a two-hour meeting at his office about a month ago. Also in attendance was John Flanagan of the state education committee and representatives from the state senate finance office also were teleconferenced in from Albany. While it was revealed that the state never intended to freeze the annual amounts of high tax aid given, the formulas that went into determining the district’s slice of the high tax aid pie remained frozen and there is no statewide consensus to change the law that drives these formulas.
Should the amended budget fail to pass on June 19, the board of education would be required to adopt a contingency budget that would require no increase in taxes over the prior year, so expenditures would have to be reduced by another $513,002. Among the cuts that could go into effect would be the elimination of state-aided capital projects and the potential loss of the current pre-K program. State mandated restrictions would also kick in for the use of school facilities, where charges would be enacted for school/field use.
The state requires a 4.11 percent tax levy limit to be submitted in order to avoid needing a super-majority vote to ensure budget passage. The amended projected tax levy for 2012-13 is 2.47, well under the cap, meaning a simple majority vote guarantees the budget passing. The FPBSD Board of Education budget hearing will be held at the JLCS auditorium on Monday, June 11 at 7:30 p.m. That same day, voter registration will be conducted from 4 to 8 p.m. at JLCS and FPBS. The school district budget revote will be held on Tuesday, June 19, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at JLCS and FPBS. Residents unable to vote in person are encouraged to fill out an absentee ballot. Applications are available at www.floralpark.k12.ny.us