"(Director of Special Services Kathy Rourke) has been saying, 'Haven't you talked about the 2014-15 budget for the last five years? Haven't you talked about how awful this was going to be?'", King told the board. "I think I have. And it's come to call now."
School Board President Glenn Swanson noted that if voters don't approve whatever amount the board proposes to levy, the state mandated contingency budget will be a disaster for the district. Swanson noted that a contingency budget for next year would mean a cut of $1.5 million in the budget.
"We would have to decrease the tax rate if we went to contingency," King said. "It would mean cutting close to 20 faculty or staff."
The problem is multifold. The State promises districts a certain amount of aid each year, but in recent years it has been withholding large amounts. The tax cap equation is based on the CSI, which is projected lower this year, meaning the amount the district is allowed to levy is reduced. The district can choose to ignore the tax cap, but only if a supermajority (60%) of voters say yes. The Cayuga Power Plant PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) agreement calls for a $14 million reduction in taxable value again this year. The rock is the reductions in state aid and PILOT revenue. The hard place is the district's ability to sustain higher taxes.
"We are in a pickle," Swanson said. "A difficult spot, because if we go down without a supermajority, we have another chance. But if we go down on that... This is the most difficult one we've had because it has the highest risks."
Adding to the fiscal stress, the board intends to put a capital project on the May ballot to replace the district's three failing septic systems. Swanson says that replacing the systems in a capital project now is essential because the state will fund about 60% of a capital project. If the district waits for the current aging systems to fail, it would be on the hook for the entire bill for an emergency replacement project.
On top of all that, the district is expected to run out of reserve funds around 2017. Typically districts use reserves to lower the tax levy, and therefore the tax rate. With just over $4 million available in reserves this year, that number is expected to dwindle to zero by the 2017-18 school year. That may be extended, but the fewer reserve dollars applied to a budget, the more tax dollars are needed.
With that in mind King presented a series of questions to the board along with four tax rate rise scenarios including 4%, 6%, 8% and 10%. If the board were to choose 10% it would raise the tax rate to $22.76 per $1,000 of taxable property value, coing to $413 for a $200,000 house and bringing just over $2 million of additional revenue to the schools. King said the average tax rate over the past four years went up 4.08%. But Swanson worried the public might not bear the 4% option this year.
"We've got to figure out how much the public can tolerate, and how much we are going to take out of reserves," he said. "Knowing that projection, we are running out of money. If we say we can only tolerate 2% you have to find more opportunities (for reducing spending), which probably means bigger class sizes and all those things we've tried to stay away from."
Superintendent Chris Pettograsso says that once the numbers are formulated school officials will go to local organizations to present the budget and the justification for doing it that way. If the budget is voted down in May a second vote may be held. If that vote also fails to approve the budget the contingency budget will automatically be applied.