The biggest disservice New York State lawmakers did to themselves — and to local school districts — when they passed the tax levy increase cap in 2011 was to call it a 2 percent cap.
It is not a 2 percent cap.
Exclusions, mainly related to pension costs, give schools the flexibility to increase the district tax levy by upwards of 4 percent in a given year. This year, only one of the seven school districts on the North Fork is increasing taxes by less than 2 percent — that would be Oysterponds, which has actually proposed a tax levy decrease. The other six districts are all raising the tax levy between 2.29 and 4.1 percent.
This is in line with districts across Suffolk County, where the Empire Center for New York State Policy says the average proposed tax levy increase is 3.5 percent for the 2013-14 school year. The average proposed increase across New York state is 4.6 percent, the nonprofit reports.
A June 2011 press release issued by state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said the “tax levy cap would shift the focus from total spending to the actual property taxes levied to support school district and local government expenses.”
But one unintended consequence might be that while districts are focused on making sure they stay within the cap, many are actually spending more.
In the two years since the cap was passed, the North Fork’s seven school districts have increased spending by a combined $19.21 million, while spending increased by just $10.22 million in the two previous years.
That’s not to place the blame for this gimmicky legislation on school administrators, who, given the choice, would prefer not to have a tax cap.
The problem with the law is that 2 percent means very little, it’s just a number that looks nice in a headline. The reality is you’ll not be voting on budgets that will raise your taxes by less than 2 percent this year.
The cap was the easy thing to do, but it might just lead to bigger headaches down the road.
For lawmakers to truly curb government spending across New York State they need to get public school teacher and administrator salaries, as well as the five- and six-figure payouts many of them receive upon retiring, back into the realm of what’s normal for middle-income earners.
Lawmakers should never even have considered passing this 2 percent tax increase cap without an accompanying public workers’ compensation overhaul.