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Lowville Academy proposing tax hike for first time in nine years

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LOWVILLE — For the first time in nearly a decade, the Lowville Academy and Central School District is proposing to raise its tax levy.

“In the long run, it’s a solid plan to keep the budget stable,” district Business Manager Sandra M. Rivers said of the tentative budget, which includes a 1.95 percent levy hike. “We have to look at the long-term financial plan.”

Buoyed by nearly $3.5 million in annual revenues through a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with Maple Ridge Wind Farm, the district for the past eight years has maintained a stable tax levy.

However, the proposed 2014-15 spending plan would raise it by $74,000, from $3,791,071 to $3,865,071.

District officials intend to start building a tax levy base in hopes of avoiding huge tax increases when the PILOT plan expires in several years and annual revenues from the wind farm are expected to plummet.

The district is projecting an unrestricted fund balance of $10.3 million, more than 40 percent of the budget. The state comptroller’s office recommends that districts have a fund balance amounting to 4 percent of their budgets or less.

However, Superintendent Cheryl R. Steckly said her district, which for years has unsuccessfully lobbied for state legislation allowing it to create a tax stabilization reserve fund, is not hoarding money and doesn’t expect those reserves to last long if and when wind farm revenues drop significantly. “It goes down very quickly when it starts to go down,” she said.

“We’re going to need that fund balance to ease ourself out of the PILOT over the next seven years,” Mrs. Rivers said.

Also, given the governor’s plan for taxpayer rebates to cover any tax increases in jurisdictions — like the Lowville district — that stay within tax-cap requirements, school officials felt this was a good year to propose an increase, Mrs. Steckly said.

Tax rates won’t be determined until final town tax rolls are completed in August. However, based on preliminary projections of an increase in taxable value, district officials believe there may be little change in the full-value tax rate from last year’s $7.73 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Spending in the 2014-15 tentative budget would decrease by $941,211, from $26,323,456 to $25,382,245. However, that 3.58 percent drop is attributed mostly to reduction of debt service after paying off the 1998 Building for Our Future capital project.

With the corresponding drop in building aid, overall state aid is to drop by $1.02 million, from $17.42 million to $16.4 million. Foundation aid is slated to increase from $11.51 million to $11.62 million.

The proposed spending plan would use $1.5 million from the district’s fund balance to keep taxes down. That’s the same as in the 2013-14 budget.

The primary cost increase would be in salaries, which are projected to rise by $307,152 to $12.28 million. State retirement benefits are projected to jump by $141,498 to $2.08 million.

An extra investment in technology upgrades will add to expenditures in the upcoming budget but leverage more state aid in the following year, which should provide long-term cost savings, Mrs. Rivers said.

A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held at 6:30 p.m. May 12 in the elementary school’s cafeteria. The annual budget vote and Board of Education election will take place from noon to 8 p.m. May 20 in the school auditorium.

District voters also will be asked to approve the purchase of three buses for up to $360,000 and authorize transportation of students to Lowville Head Start on regularly scheduled bus routes.

Board of Education members Thomas M. Schneeberger, Rebecca P. Kelly and Michael F. Young are running unopposed for three-year seats.

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