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Greenport may pierce property tax cap next school year

Greenport voters will likely be asked to pierce the state property tax cap this year as school administrators plan for what is expected to be among the largest tax levy percentage increases of any Long Island district, according to data recently filed with New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office.

School officials projected a tax levy increase of 6.22 percent for the 2016-17 school year in a report all New York districts are required to file with the comptroller before March 1. The data shows the amount raised from taxes would increase by $790,000 next school year to a total of about $13.5 million.

Greenport is one of only five Long Island school districts — Shelter Island, Amagansett, Bridgehampton and Sachem are the others — expected to pierce the property tax cap, according to the comptroller’s office.

Greenport’s projected percentage increase is third largest among all L.I. districts.

Superintendent David Gamberg described the recent estimate as “fluid” since district administrators and school board members are still finalizing next year’s spending plan. He said administrators did not discuss the projected tax levy increase at a March 8  budget workshop because he expects the numbers to change before voters head to the polls in May.

“We didn’t present that number because we don’t believe that number is solid,” he said.

Mr. Gamberg added that he believes many other area districts will later adopt budgets attempting to pierce the cap, since the state has mandated a nearly zero percent levy increase for 2016-17.

Mr. DiNapoli has said that school districts and municipalities will be expected to cap tax levy increases at 0.12 percent, down from the current fiscal year’s limit of 1.62 percent. State legislation passed in 2012 requires school districts and municipalities to limit increases in the amount of money they raise through property taxes to either 2 percent or the rate of inflation determined by the Consumer Price Index, whichever is less.

If a school district decides to pierce the tax cap, the budget must receive 60 percent voter approval.

In May 2013, Greenport was the first local school district to propose piercing the tax cap, for which it was able to obtain the necessary voter support. No other North Fork district has attempted to pierce the cap since.

With exemptions, Greenport is allowed under the cap to raise the tax levy by about $98,320 — a .77 percent increase over the current school year —  an amount Mr. Gamberg has described as “insufficient.”

“We are faced with a tax levy that isn’t sustainable to keep the district functioning as it currently is,” he said.

What has contributed to Greenport’s budget constraints is a loss of about $900,000 in state aid over the years through the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), among other mandated expenses, Mr. Gamberg said. The GEA formula has worked by reducing the amount of aid school districts are entitled to each year.

Greenport is expected to receive just $1,494 in GEA funds next school year, he added.

Mr. Gamberg said those state aid reductions have had a compounding effect on the budget process.

“This budget is years in the making,” he said.

Mr. Gamberg also said health care costs and a desire to restore previously eliminated staff positions are among the other reasons spending is expected to increase next school year.  District teachers are also scheduled for about a 1 percent salary hike next school year, according to the terms of their current contract.

The school board has scheduled a second budget workshop for 5 p.m. today before its regular meeting at 7 p.m.

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