Only a few days remain in the legislative session with several major pieces of legislation still on the agenda. One is a proposed 2 percent cap on property taxes. While it would apply to school districts and other taxing jurisdictions, the proposal would have the greatest impact on school districts already operating on tight budgets.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders have agreed on the framework for a tax cap that would generally restrict yearly tax hikes by the many taxing jurisdictions to 2 percent, but school districts would be most affected since their tax levies would require a public vote with 60 percent approval needed to exceed the cap. A minority of voters would be able to thwart the will of the majority. In some versions of the plan, voters' approval would not be required for villages, towns and counties to raise the limit by a 60 percent vote of the board.
Municipalities could be forced to lay off workers, delay maintenance or put off infrastructure improvements without sufficient funds.
Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver wants to link action on the tax cap to extending rent control in New York City.
The three-way agreement among the leadership makes some exceptions that would let schools and municipalities exceed the cap by excluding some pension costs. Schools and local governments that do not use their entire cap in any year can carry over up to 1.5 percent of their unused capacity to the next year, building in a cushion for future years.
The cap would hit hardest north country school districts that rely heavily on property taxes, especially at a time when Albany is reducing state aid that has forced two years of drastic cuts in staff and programs. Districts that have held the line on taxes will be penalized by their inability to generate more taxes.
Wealthier school districts with high levies would be able to raise more money, exacerbating the disparity in curricular offerings that already exists between poor, rural districts and well-to-do suburban ones.
The cap fails to address the problem of state mandates and soaring pension costs that are strictly under state control but imposed on schools and municipalities without relief.
"To say the tax cap is the answer without mandate relief, you're solving the wrong problem," said Joseph J. Eberle, business administrator for the South Jefferson Central School District. "Pension cost help, salary cost help, retirement cost help — then our problems will really be addressed."
Of course, school districts and taxpayers can also reduce costs by consolidating or sharing services to eliminate costly duplication. If not, then they have the choice to pay the higher taxes.
Albany should abandon the idea of a tax cap.