In 2011, the year before the New York State property tax levy cap took effect, 2,694 Southold Town residents showed up at the polls to vote on the proposed Mattituck-Cutchogue, Southold and Greenport school budgets.
Last year, the fourth budget vote with the tax cap in place, saw just 1,506 residents cast ballots in those same three districts.
That 44 percent drop in voter turnout is one of the more disappointing unintended consequences of the cap. It hasn’t just limited spending in local districts, it’s created ambivalence among voters.
The drop in the number of votes cast each year is staggering across nearly every district on the North Fork.
In Southold and Greenport, the number of people voting both for and against the school budget has decreased each year since 2013. In Mattituck-Cutchogue, a district that used to be able to count on more than 1,200 voters turning out for a budget vote, only 664 cast ballots in 2015.
Of course, the tax cap isn’t the only factor in the shrinking turnout. A shift in our town’s demographics, including an aging population and more second-home owners, has led to a drop in the number of children being educated in our schools.
Another result of this apparent indifference is a decline in the number of residents expressing interest in running for local boards of education.
Mattituck-Cutchogue is the only Southold Town district with a contested school board race this year. Last year, for the first time since 1990, there were no contests. In the past six years, only 21 newcomers have challenged incumbents for board seats in the area’s five districts — and six of those candidates are running this year in Mattituck-Cutchogue.
Even with a tax cap in place, school districts continue to account for about two-thirds of our tax bill. The expectation should still be that we want to have a say in how that money is spent. Voting on school budgets and school board elections is still our best opportunity to have our voices heard.
The residents of Mattituck-Cutchogue have a choice of seven candidates for three open school board seats Tuesday. In Greenport, the district is proposing to pierce the tax cap for the second time in five years. Even in the other three districts, where incumbents are running unopposed and modest spending increases are proposed, voters should still find the time to cast a vote.
We encourage each eligible resident to head to their local polling place Tuesday. It’s time to reverse this unfortunate downward trend.