The saga of Lansing school taxes are like a Katy Perry song:

"'Cause you're hot then you're cold
You're yes then you're no
You're in then you're out
You're up then you're down"

At the beginning of the budget season it looks like the take hike will be a lot.  Then the administrators find ways to bring it down a bit.  We get our tax bills.  We grumble.  But it's less than it looked like it would be. 

Certainly some of this is spin.  In Star Trek Scotty always told Captain Kirk it would take much longer than he knew it would, so he could come out the hero.  "Captain, it'll take three days to restart the engines!"  "You have twenty minutes."  "Aye, Captain."  Scotty starts the engines 15 minutes later.

But some of it is real.  In Lansing's case it is a combination of school officials and town officials working together in different ways toward the same goal in the face of power plant value reductions state spending cliffs, unreliable state aid, rising costs, and everything else that most school districts struggle with in New York these days.

I think about this a lot because my school taxes are too high, and mine aren't even as high as a lot of people's.  I was talking about property taxes with my cousin a few weeks ago.  She lives in New Jersey, and her property taxes are literally twice what I pay.  I felt a little guilty saying mine are high.  But they are.

So what's good and what's bad about our school taxes?  How do you sort out the bitterness about paying a lot from the joy of having a good school district?  And what is really happening here?

Let's start with the spin.  In April the School Business Administrator tells the school board what her estimates of the budget, tax levy and tax rate are at that point in time with the information available from the County Assessor's Office at that moment in time.  This year it was a very scary picture, due to a major reduction in the value of the Cayuga Power Plant.  What the plant doesn't pay, the rest of us have to pay.

Then a few things happen, at least in our district.  First, Business Administrator Mary June King watches every penny that goes in and out, and during her tenure in the district underspending the budget has become the norm.  Some of that money is put toward the next tax bill, reducing what we struggling homeowners see on our bill.  With the extreme pressure of over $100 million of power plant value evaporating, that has been a big help.

So yes, administrators know in March they will have options to lower estimated taxes, but they don't have hard data to support it.  It's a little bit of spin with a little bit of reality mixed in.  You can't say taxes will be lower unless you know for sure.  So aye, Captain, I'll need at least a day to get those engines started!

Another piece is the state tax levy cap and unpaid state mandates that make running a school so expensive in the first place.  Both of these create more paper work, mandated reporting that is costly to the schools.  And now the state is engaging in a bit of spin of its own by sending millions on rebate checks that supposedly relive we harried taxpayers from the onerous tax rises. 

School officials reason that it would cost New York taxpayers a lot less if the state simply sent the aid directly to the schools.  It would obliterate the mailing costs and the cost of writing and administering all those checks.

The State counters that they are migrating to a new system in which the tax bills will deduct $185 from your total so you won't have to pay it in the first place.  That puts the burden of administration on our local county government, which then must raise taxes to pay for the cost of administering and reporting it.  Makes the Governor and he State legislature look good when, in fact, it is hurting taxpayers.

The next piece is the assessment rolls.  Property taxes are a group thing.  The more the merrier, because the more people are in it together, the less each individual pays.  The School District can't increase the assessment rolls, but the Town can do much to facilitate growing them.  Town officials have been scrambling to promote new development in Lansing, nursing along several large and small projects, negotiating sewer capacity that will make more growth along the Warren and Triphammer Road corridors possible. 

Evidently they are meeting with some success.

Kathryn 'Kate' Heath, who will be replacing King when she retires next month, told the School Board Monday, "The assessment roles are higher than we anticipated.  That means the tax rate will not be increasing as much as we thought, so that's good news."

"It ended up being just 1% or a less than 1% change, which is a big difference from what we started putting out there in April," added School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso.

"The assessed value has increased by another 21 million or so from what we were told in March that they were going to increase," King said.  "That's a significant.  Also you putting $300,000 into the revenue stream also reduces those taxes.  So we're going to see about a $40 impact on a $200,000 house."

Some taxpayers grouse that school officials keep budgeting based on what they want, rather than what they need.  District officials counter that they are maintaining a demonstrably successful program and that is worth doing because once you lose all or part of a program, chances are it's gone for ever.  The thing is, even if the criticism is correct, it's the school officials' job to provide the best program possible.  If more tax money benefited the staff and administration it would be one thing, but in Lansing it has largely been about the children.  Perhaps not entirely, but mostly.

I have to say, I was in the critical camp, and probably still am for various reasons.  But I admire the work I have seen King do year after year to keep taxes down -- or at least less up than they would have been -- in the face of what seemed to me to be insurmountable challenges.  Heath certainly has big shoes to fill (which is not to say I would ever accuse any woman of having big feet!!!).

I haven't begun to skim the surface of the puzzle pieces that make the school tax picture.  Our largest chunk of property tax by far is school taxes.  School districts have limited ability to keep taxes down.  They can cut programs and/or they can apply spare cash to the tax levy, and that's about it.  Towns have some limited ability to keep school taxes down by aggressively nurturing growth.

That also puts a lot of pressure on the Planning Board.  I lived in a city in the Midwest for a while that let urban sprawl go crazy with no apparent planning.  The result is miles of strip malls and big box stores that is so big that people routinely drive 90 miles from Chicago to shop there.  Lansing certainly doesn't want that, and it's the Planning Board that must balance those two pressures.  At the same time Lansing is desperately in need of new development.  Because, the more the merrier.

"You're in then you're out
You're up then you're down"

It's complicated.