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Time will tell on tax cap success

May 2, 2012
Westfield Republican / Mayville Sentinel News

It's been a year since Gov. Andrew Cuomo's 2 percent cap on increases in property tax levies became law.

It's far too early to say whether it's a success.

Despite its flaws, the cap makes governments and school districts think about their spending as they approach that 2 percent tax levy increase every year. In the cap's first year, close to 85 percent of the cities, towns, villages and special districts in New York stayed within the tax cap.

School districts are now preparing the first round of budgets under the tax cap - and most will likely propose tax increases falling under the tax cap.

Throughout the area, school districts are combining staffing cuts, trimming programs and reaching into reserves to stay under the cap. Jamestown is proposing no tax increase by cutting positions and digging deeply into its fund balance. Southwestern has cut eight teachers from its budget. Westfield has received concessions from its teachers union and proposed a laundry list of cuts to get under the tax cap. Cattaraugus-Little Valley has laid off teachers and closed an elementary school building to arrive at a 1.99 percent tax hike.

That's a lot of work to meet a tax cap that is, at best, a guideline. A school budget proposed that stays under the tax cap needs only 50 percent of a district's voters. A budget exceeding the cap needs to be approved by 60 percent of voters. Rather than a true cap, the 2-percent figure is a sweetener to make it easier for budgets to pass.

There will come a time when area school districts have made the cuts they are able to make, when fixed factors like pension and health insurance contributions will be too much for districts to handle while remaining under the cap.

When that time comes, will taxpayers who have become accustomed to cap-created small tax increases push for cost-saving structural changes in the way our governments and schools do business? Will the tax cap end up pushing communities to consider regional high schools? Will we see another round of proposed consolidations and mergers?

Or will we see districts throw their hands up in the air and hope for a 60 percent supermajority of votes on budget after budget of proposed 5 percent tax increases?

Until those questions are answered, we won't know whether Cuomo's tax cap is truly a success.



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