Schenectady County

Tax cap worries cast long shadow for Niskayuna schools

Niskayuna school officials are looking glumly at the prospect of cutting $3.5 million from next year

Niskayuna school officials are looking glumly at the prospect of cutting $3.5 million from next year’s budget to get under the tax levy cap.

Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio said major spending cuts and changes to programs will likely be needed.

“You’re not going to make a $31⁄2 million reduction in your budget by trimming anything,” she said Tuesday at the Board of Education meeting.

Salvaggio and Assistant Superintendent for Business Matt Bourgeois cautioned that information about the tax cap is constantly in flux and these numbers could change. Salvaggio worried that it could get even worse.

Niskayuna’s tax levy increase in the 2011-12 budget — about 4 percent — was the highest among the county school districts. Voters in May overwhelmingly backed the $77.2 million budget, of which $49.3 million is funded through property taxes and the rest from state aid and other revenues. The tax rate increase for homeowners in Niskayuna ended up being 4.2 percent because of declining property values.

Under the new tax levy cap formula, Niskayuna’s next budget could collect no more than $50.5 million in property taxes.

If the district submitted a budget higher than that, it would need a super majority of voters — 60 percent — to approve it at the ballot box.

Salvaggio said some people have told her that the Niskayuna community would support a budget that exceeds the tax cap.

“I’ve had many more people say we can’t continue to spend at this level. We cannot support it. We’re going to try to live within our means.”

Problem persists

The budget picture gets even uglier in future years. She projected the district would have to cut another $650,000 in spending for the 2013-14 budget and nearly $800,000 for 2014-15.

“Everything we do keeps costing more money,” Salvaggio said.

The complicated tax cap formula starts with a district’s previous year tax levy and multiplies it by a factor measuring any growth in the tax base. Niskayuna has seen little change in its total tax base, school officials said. The formula takes into account only new property constructed or existing buildings removed — not assessed value.

“The fact that the property itself is losing value has no bearing in this calculation,” Salvaggio said.

Bourgeois added that the new Shop Rite is not going help the district because the supermarket moved into an existing empty space and didn’t build a new structure.

The “adjusted” levy amount is multiplied by either 2 percent or the consumer price index — whichever is less.

At this point, school districts could also add a “carryover” if they were under the limit in the previous year, according to Bourgeois.

“In some dream world, if you didn’t need to have a 2 percent tax increase and only had to go up 11⁄2 percent, then it could go up that extra half a percent,” he said. However, Bourgeois added that since this is the first year under the law, the waiver wouldn’t apply anyway.

The district can factor in exemptions for payments on debt for building projects and a share of pension costs. For example, if the increase in pension costs is 2.4 percent, only 2 percent of that is excluded toward counting toward the cap.

Salvaggio has already taken one step in the budget process. She is moving up the class scheduling process so she can see how many students are signing up for classes at the high school. If only 5 students are signed up to take a class, it may be dropped.

Given the fiscal situation, she said it is more important than ever to seek resident input on school spending. She suggested that the board set aside time at regular meetings for specific topics on the budget such as class size and combined classes. School officials are also planning more online surveys.

“That’s not a pretty picture but it’s reality,” she said of budget cuts. “We have some very real decisions ahead of us.”

The board’s next meeting will be at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 at the district offices at Van Antwerp Middle School.

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