"What the Governor is really trying to do is encourage schools to keep their budgets within what they feel is a reasonable increase based on their formula," says Lansing School Board President Glenn Swanson. "If we do that they are rewarding taxpayers by giving the money back. So it's penalizing districts that are not able to do that. I understand the logic. I'm not saying I agree with it."
Lansing School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso certainly doesn't agree with it. In light of the GAP Elimination Adjustment (GEA) that has cost the Lansing district $5.7 million in promised state aid that has not been delivered over the past five years, Pettograsso says she would prefer that the state just pay back the money they owe instead of rebating the money to taxpayers. While the rebate looks good to voters now, one reason taxes are so high is that the state has not made good on its promises of school aid dollars.
Because of that Pettograsso says she has been skeptical that the rebates will actually be issued. But at Monday's budget hearing she said that indications are that it will be.
"We checked this by calling the New York State Tax Department and they did confirm it," she said. But she reiterated her disappointment that GEA money is not being fully restored. "We believe New York State is using the money instead of increasing state aid to schools."
Lansing homeowners have been taking on an increasing burden over the past five years, partly because of reduced state aid, partly because of the decrease in value of the Cayuga Power Plant, and partly because it has a higher Combined Wealth Ratio that neighboring districts. School Business Administrator Mary June King says that doesn't mean that Lansing is wealthy on an all-state basis. It just means that it is wealthier than neighboring communities. That result is that a larger percentage of the Lansing school budget is paid for by property taxpayers than in most other districts in Tompkins County.
Despite that, Lansing has been right in the middle of Tompkins County school tax rates for the past five years, and King says that an informal poll of her fellow business administrators predicts that it will be the fourth highest again this year.
Here's how the rebate works. This year's allowed property tax levy increase under the 2% tax cap law is 4.81%. Lansing is proposing a 4.80% increase in its levy from last year. Because the increase falls below the cap Lansing taxpayers are eligible for the rebate. In 2014 the rebate is calculated as the higher of the increase in the 2014-15 school taxes or 1.46% times the 2013-14 tax bill.
"Any school district that stays under the tax cap and the residents earn less than $500,000 income will get the different of your tax increase from the 2013-14 school year and the 2014-15 school year in the form of a rebate check expected by November 1," Pettograsso says. "So if your taxes go up by $150 you'll get a check from New York State covering that difference of $150."
Of course there is reporting, another cost to the school district. The district has to submit an efficiency plan, which the State must approve before district taxpayers are eligible for the rebate. Good news for Lansing taxpayers is that the schools have cooperated with the Town and with BOCES for years, and past efficiencies will be accepted. For example the Town Highway Department typically does the paving on the school campus with the schools picking up the tab for materials. The school Athletics Department has long cooperated with the Town Parks and Recreation Department. In fact the latter recently picked up some programs like Cheerleading when school budget cuts put them on the chopping block. In addition to BOCES classes for students, Lansing has taken advantages of many of its services including business office and tax collection functions and technology services and procurement contracts.
The rebate is not an annual benefit. The plan is projected to run for three years, but each year the requirements are different.
"That's year one," Pettograsso explains. "In year two if we stay within the tax cap and the Town stays within the town tax cap, and we show some consolidation with each other or with BOCES, then again you will get a tax credit rebate check in the mail."
That's it for the school district. Tax rebates will be applied to local government (Town of Lansing) taxes only in the third year. Because town taxes are a small fraction of school taxes the rebate in the third year won't amount to much.
The Lansing Board of Education was able to keep the increase to $8.0 by applying $1,335,000 of appropriated fund balance monies to the proposed $27,820,000 budget. After applying other projected revenue that leaves $16,570,000 that property taxpayers must pony up. While any qualifying district resident votes to approve the budget, only property owners pay the tax.
Lansing is lucky. When residents go to the polls Tuesday 50% will be needed to approve the budget, which will not require any program cuts for next school year. Ithaca City School taxpayers will need 60% of voters to approve a $113.7 million budget that includes a tax levy increase of almost 9%. Because the state mandated cap for the city schools levy increase is only about 3 percent, a supermajority of 60% will be needed to approve it. If they do, they will pay the increase, but will not be eligible for a rebate.
In Lansing, the tax increase under Basic Star is expected to be $63 dollars for a $100,000 house, $138 for a $200,000 house and $213 for a 300,000 house. For homeowners who qualify for Senior Enhanced Star the increases are expected to be $51 for a $100,000 home, $126 for a $200,000 home and $201 for a $300,000 house. Those are the amounts homeowners can expect when their rebate check hits their mailboxes in November.