The Lansing Board of Education Monday unanimously approved a $29,152,000 budget for the 2017-18 school year. The budget represents a 3.94% rise over the current school year budget. The bad news for homeowners is that revenue from PILOTs (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) will be down a whopping 27.58% in large part because of a new devaluation of the Cayuga Power Plant. That revenue loss will have to be made up either by property taxpayers, appropriated funds from the school coffers, or a combination of the two.
"I was able to use the property tax cap levy based on the reduction in the (power plant) PILOT," explained School Business Administrator Mary June King. "That's a reduction from $60 million to $35 million, a $25 million reduction in the value of the power plant down the road. The property tax cap holds you harmless for that reduction so you are able to bring in those dollars in the form of taxes without requiring a super-majority of your (voter) population."
King said that while spending on non-salary items will be down 2.25% next year, salary spending will go up 2.68%, BOCES expenses will be up 12.81%, benefits up 0.85%, and debt service up 6.66%.
After all other revenue, including that of PILOTs, is calculated, the rest is collected from property taxpayers. With a 27.58% drop in PILOT revenue, from a budgeted $17.2 million in the current year to $18.3 million in the new budget, the tax levy will rise 6.88%.
But King explained that until revenue and spending numbers are solidified in July. She pointed out that Monday's vote was on the budget only, and the tax levy will not be voted on by the School Board until after the budget vote in May. Three school board positions will also be filled in that vote.
School district voters only get to vote on the budget itself, the amount of expenditures it approves for each year. King said that the Board will have an opportunity to reduce the projected $18,343,440 once the final spending report for this year is known, meaning that there may be more money left over from the 2016-17 budget to relieve the burden on taxpayers.
"That's not a number that we know for sure yet," she told the School Board. "That's the number that you'll vote on in July. At that time we'll know how much money we have left over from our operations this year. If you decide you want to appropriate more money into the revenue stream and lower that tax levy you can do so."
Along with the tax cap mandate, New York State has sought to relieve property taxpayers to some extent with a rebate in the form of a check. Until last Friday state officials were telling local taxing authorities that a flat $185 reduction would be embedded in the tax bill instead of the rebate checks the State mailed to property owners over the past two years. King said that last Friday state officials changed that plan so that checks will be mailed again this year with an eye to permanently embedding the tax relief into eligible STAR credit recipients.
"If you’re a homeowner receiving a STAR benefit, and your locality kept its tax increases under the tax cap, we’ll automatically send you a check for your property tax freeze and relief credits," reads the updated Office of Real Property Tax Services Web site. "You don’t need to take any action or call; we’re continuing to send checks."
The Department of Taxation and Finance estimates it will mail over two million checks to elegible property taxpayers this year. But how much will be rebated to each taxpayer is still unknown. The flat $185 is gone. King said that Tompkins County Assessment Office Director Jay Franklin is tracking down the new amounts taxpayers will receive, which may be in the neighborhood of $200 -- or not.
"He said don't give out any concrete numbers," she said. "He said he would bring them for us (when he finds out what they are). But in 2017 it will be a check again. Hopefully they will start embedding it after that."
Superintendent Chris Pettograsso said the District was planning to send a postcard Tuesday explaining the embedded $185, but put a halt to the mailing when the State changed its mind.
Taxpayers will vote on whether to approve the budget in May.