2012-13 Budget Information
Property tax cap changes school budget landscape in New York
New York State has a property tax cap.
Adopted by the Legislature last week in a flurry of end-of-session activity, the measure seeks to limit the annual increase in the tax levies of local governments and school districts. The legislation also included a package of items that legislators said was intended to offer districts some mandate relief, referring to state laws and regulations that drive up costs and ultimately taxes. While the new law is being advertised as a 2 percent cap on annual property tax levy increases, several provisions dictate that the actual increases will vary from that figure. This is primarily due to a series of costs that are exempt from the cap, including some pension contributions and spending for voter-approved capital projects.
Voters will still decide on school budgets in New York.
The 2 percent number, (or inflation, if it is less) actually refers to the figure that determines what level of voter support is needed for a school budget to pass. If the tax levy increase is above the cap after accounting for exemptions the support of a supermajority (60 percent) of voters would be required for budget passage. If it is within the cap, a simple majority is needed for budget approval. We are still gathering details about the property tax cap and what it means for us. This will certainly be a major factor in the coming years, and could force more difficult decisions like what we have seen in the last few budget cycles.
Although we do not yet have full details about the legislation from the state, it is important to provide an overview of the information that is available.
Tax Cap Law Basics
How is the cap calculated?
- The calculation for a district's cap in a given year starts with either 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. (If the cap had been in place for 2011-12, this figure would have actually been the inflation measure of 1.6 percent.)
- The next step in the calculation is to account for costs that are exempt from the cap. These include: state pension system increases above 2 percent of payroll; tax base growth; and some court judgments and successful tax assessment challenges.
- These exemptions mean it is expected that districts will propose tax levy increases above 2 percent (or inflation), and still be considered within the cap.
What does it mean to be considered 'within the cap'? Aren't voters still going to decide on school budgets either way?
- Yes, voters will still decide on budgets. Therefore, the cap itself might be more accurately described as the figure that determines what level of voter support is needed for a budget to pass. If the budget carries a tax levy above the figure resulting from the cap calculation as described above, a supermajority (60 percent) of voters are required for budget passage. If the tax levy included with a proposed budget is within the calculated figure, a simple majority is needed to pass the budget.
- Note: Districts are not required to propose budgets that carry tax levy increases at the maximum allowed under the calculation. This calculated figure simply represents the maximum tax levy increase that districts can propose without triggering the need for supermajority support.
What other elements of the law will affect school budgets and taxpayers?
- School districts may "bank" unused portions of their cap for subsequent years. Again, this really refers to what might be added to the tax levy without requiring a supermajority for passage.
- Similar to current law, school districts can hold up to two budget votes under the tax cap law. If two budget votes are defeated, districts would be required to spend the same amount as the previous year.
- Voter-approved capital construction projects are exempted from the cap on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Because the debt payments for previous district capital construction project are now staying relatively flat, it is unclear if this exemption would apply.
- Under the law, districts must submit their proposed budget to the state Comptroller's Office, Education Commissioner and Tax Commissioner by March 1 each year. It may prove difficult for districts to know their tax levies by this date; the state budget deadline isn't until a month later, and tax levies are typically calculated after all other sources of revenue, including state aid, are applied.
- As a final note, the tax cap applies to a district's tax levy, which is different from tax rates. Tax rate increases can be different from the tax levy increase due to changing assessment levels as determined by the state. Therefore, the establishment of this tax cap does not mean that individual property owners' tax bills will necessarily be capped in the same way as the tax levy. The district does not control this.
Mandate relief measures
The tax cap legislation was approved with a package of changes intended to help school districts and local governments control costs. These included the creation of a Mandate Relief Council to curb some of the laws and regulations that lead to escalating expenses for school districts and local government. At this time, we are not immediately clear which elements of this relief, if any, might help the district bring down costs.
In a press release, the New York State Senate Majority said that the package of mandate relief would save the state's districts $34.6 million. These savings are just a fraction of the $1.3 billion loss of state aid New York's districts will see next year under the enacted state budget.
The mandate relief items approved recently that apply to schools include:
Mandate Relief Council
- This 11-member council will determine if a statute or regulation is unsound, unduly burdensome, or costly; establish procedures for repealing unfunded mandates in both statute and regulation; provide a procedure for direct appeals from school districts and other local governments on mandates; and require the state Comptroller to issue a detailed report on the cost and effect of unfunded mandates.
- Student Transportation: The new law allows districts to base bus routes on patterns of ridership instead of having a seat for every potential rider. When the New York State Education Department clarified its regulations in the same manner this spring, the district immediately surveyed parents to see if their children planned to utilize district transportation next year. The majority of parent respondents said their children did plan to ride the bus to some extent next year. The results of this survey, along with the district's own ridership data, will allow it to create some efficiencies. However, this change is not expected to lead to substantial savings.
- Cooperative purchasing: The new law allows school districts greater flexibility in cooperative purchasing with other districts, and state and federal contracts. While this may lead to better deals on some goods and services, ECSD already does as much competitive/joint purchasing as possible, including through state contracts, and with other school districts via BOCES.
- This gives districts the ability to finance up to 125 percent of their pension contribution increases incurred during the next three years. Because pension costs are an ongoing obligation, district officials said that in most ordinary cases it would be imprudent to take on debt to fund them. Stretching these payments out over a period of years, and paying financing charges on top of them, would cost more in the long run.
The new law also allows up to three districts with less than 1,000 students to share a superintendent. This does not apply to ECSD, given its total enrollment of over 7,000 students.